Monday, September 12, 2005

Katrina demolishes New Orleans justice system

The New Orleans criminal justice system has been scattered. 8000 prisoners were evacuated to 35 locations around Louisiana. There was no paperwork to accompany them, according to Henry Weinstein, veteran criminal justice writer for the Los Angeles Times.

The more than temporary shut down of local, state and federal courts -- with the evacuation of attorneys, judges, other court personnel, and witnesses -- is unprecedented.

The collapse of the New Orleans legal system should raise the question of continuity of government for disasters less cataclysmic than than the killing of much of Congress. Congress has been facing this question, without taking action, since shortly after 9/11 when it realized that the Capitol was a target of the hijacked jet that crashed in Pennsylvania.

According to a Jan. 2005 Congressional Research Service paper:
Presidential Decision Directive 67 (PDD 67), was signed by President William Clinton on October 21, 1998, and relates to ensuring constitutional government, continuity of operations planning, and continuity of government operations. Federal agencies are required to develop Continuity of Operations Plans for Essential Operations that identify those requirements necessary to support the primary functions of the agencies, such as emergency communications, a chain of command, and delegation of authority. The full text of the directive remains security classified." .....

The Judicial Branch.
The Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States and prescribes the statutory creation of inferior federal courts, but is silent regarding the continued functioning of the federal judiciary during or after an incapacitating catastrophe. Plans exist for the protection of the justices of the Supreme Court, but the details of these plans are not public information. In locales of the United States where federal courts could not function due to an emergency, the President might temporarily declare martial law and vest minimal trial court authority in military tribunals convened by commanding officers in the field dispatched to enforce federal law. [See 10 U.S.C. 332 relating to "...unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States..." The text of the martial law provision clearly does not apply to natural disasters.]

Returning to the tragedy in Louisiana, one defense attorney in Louisiana, interviewing prisoners once held in Orleans parish jail, told the LA Times the prisoners said as water flooded into the jail, they were moved to cells on higher and higher floors, and finally to the top-floor gymnasium. When water was chest high, they broke windows and swam for safety. The attorney said that prisoners fear that some drowned.

Court records, charging documents, and physical evidence may have been destroyed.

Court personnel, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses, have been scattered by the evacuation as evacuees have been flown and driven all over the United States.

Yet blustering statements that the courts will carry on and begin its work on September 16 are being made by the chief judge of the criminal division in Orleans Parish. Judge Calvin Johnson told the LA Times, "We are going to operate the criminal district court and do it in conformity with the Constitution....I assure you of that. We will ensure public safety is protected and the rights of the accused are protected."

Indigent defense in Louisiana's justice system is funded by the fines from traffic tickets -- a large portion of which were generated in New Orleans. That source of revenue is now largely closed.

What does a person released on bail do not knowing when a trial might be resumed? What do the officers supervising those released on probation or parole do to supervise or contact their clients?

What do victims of crime do about their cases?

The Dallas Morning News has also reported on this problem, syndicated by Knight Ridder/Tribune news service

In Mississippi, the courts in 27 counties have been disrupted. The State Supreme Court has sent a task force to study the situation.

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