NY Times: Storm Leaves Legal System a Shambles

by Last Night in Little Rock

The NY Times tomorrow has an article about the chaos in the legal system in NOLA, an issue that has been flying around the NACDL list serv since the storm. Criminal defense lawyers have been hearing these horror stories for over a week.

It compares the problems in NOLA today to the chaos after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

At Rapides Parish Detention Center 3 in Alexandria, which normally holds convicted felons, there are now 200 new inmates who arrived hot, hungry and exhausted on buses this week after being evacuated from flooded jails in New Orleans.

They have no paperwork indicating whether they are charged with having too much to drink or attempted murder. There is no judge to hear their cases, no courthouse designated to hear them in and no lawyer to represent them. If lawyers can be found, there is no mechanism for paying them. The prisoners have had no contact with their families for days and do not know whether they are alive or dead, if their homes do or do not exist.

"It's like taking a jail and shaking it up in a fruit-basket turnover, so no one has any idea who these people are or why they're here," said Phyllis Mann, one of several local lawyers who were at the detention center until 11 p.m. Wednesday, trying to collect basic information on the inmates. "There is no system of any kind for taking care of these people at this point."

Along with the destruction of homes, neighborhoods and lives, Hurricane Katrina decimated the legal system of the New Orleans region.

More than a third of the state's lawyers have lost their offices, some for good. Most computer records will be saved. Many other records will be lost forever. Some local courthouses have been flooded, imperiling a vast universe of files, records and documents. Court proceedings from divorces to murder trials, to corporate litigation, to custody cases will be indefinitely halted and when proceedings resume lawyers will face prodigious--if not insurmountable--obstacles in finding witnesses and principals and in recovering evidence.

This is every lawyer's and every client's nightmare, only those of us outside of NOLA never had to worry about the risk.

My fear is that a significant number of lawyers will simply decide that picking up the pieces of their practice, if there are any pieces to find, will drive them from the practice of law. I will bet that the fallout rate will be significant because the physical, emotional, and financial cost of starting over will be too much for too many to bear.

If that happens, the system as a whole suffers yet another great loss.

< Columnist Takes Swipe Over NOLA Pictures | Why Is McClellan Called "Press Secretary"? "Duck and Cover" >
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    Re: NY Times: Storm Leaves Legal System a Shambles (none / 0) (#1)
    by aw on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:03:31 PM EST
    I'm sure we've only seen the tip of the iceberg in the Gulf coast disaster. What other catastropic results will there be? The republicans WILL answer for their penny-wise, pound-foolish policies. This HAS to be a turning point.