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The flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina destroyed court records and evidence and scattered witnesses, making court coverage a challenge. From…

The flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina destroyed court records and evidence and scattered witnesses, making court coverage a challenge.

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 11.

By Susan Burgess

Several refrigerated trucks sit somewhere on the Gulf Coast &#151 their exact location is a secret &#151 filled with Louisiana Supreme Court case documents, docket books and court orders left waterlogged by Hurricane Katrina. The public documents, some related to capital murder cases, won’t be available for public inspection any time soon. They are headed to be freeze dried, a process that extracts the water while keeping the paper &#151 and what’s printed on it &#151 intact.

The soggy documents temporarily pulled from public view are just one example of how Katrina has blocked media access to New Orleans state and federal courts, many of which have moved to temporary locations.

When court proceedings resume, reporters predict that evidence and witnesses that once existed may be unrecoverable. Access issues will be at their worst in the upcoming months, observers predict, as the city recovers and the legal system returns to running smoothly again. Bernard Hibbits, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who publishes and edits The Jurist, an online legal newspaper, expects that reporters will have trouble tracking down information that simply is no longer available.

“The diaspora of witnesses and general personnel will be an access problem,” he said. “With so many refugees and people leaving the area, it could be impossible for people to access needed information. Most problems will be evidentiary in nature.”

Indeed, evidence issues already exist. Katrina flooded both evidence rooms of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court, according to Ralph Brandt in the New Orleans District Attorney’s office. Commercial forensic recovery companies are working to recover the evidence. It is still uncertain, however, which evidence has been destroyed and in what cases.

Locating lawyers also will be difficult. More than one-third of the state’s lawyers lost their offices to Katrina’s damage, The New York Times reported. Journalists may be able to get attorneys’ contact information from a court that the attorney has a case before, the Louisiana State Bar’s registry of displaced lawyers, or Internet message boards created to help lawyers and clients contact each other. Both the Louisiana State Bar Association and the New Orleans Bar Association sponsor message boards on their Web sites.

In the initial aftermath of the storm, covering the judicial systems of New Orleans was not an issue &#151 the courts were closed and journalists were more concerned about covering the storm’s aftermath. Most New Orleans residents, including court staff, had evacuated to wait out the storm. Soon after, court staffers’ attention quickly turned to taking stock of personal lives and doing whatever was needed to get courts up and running again. Reopening the courts has been slow because the courts have not been fully staffed, said Loretta White, chief clerk of U.S. District Court in New Orleans, which has established temporary offices in Baton Rouge, Houma and Lafayette. Because some of the courts have literally been closed, there has been much less legal activity for reporters to cover. It also means that, to the extent there has been any case activity, reporters have had to retrieve court documents from the Internet, make do without the documents if they’re not recoverable from the original courthouse or, when possible, try to get them from the courthouses’ temporary locations.

Some of New Orleans’ federal and state courthouses have closed indefinitely. When flooding made the United States Court of Appeals (5th Cir.) inaccessible, and it appeared that New Orleans could lack electricity for more than a month, Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King decided to move the court to Houston, a logical choice considering that King’s chambers are located there and the U.S. District Court in Houston had sufficient office space and resources to accommodate the three appellate judges and their staff.

John Council, a Dallas-based reporter who covers the Fifth Circuit for Texas Lawyer, could not access the federal appellate court’s Web site for almost a month when the court was in the process of moving to Houston and, therefore, could not retrieve up-to-date documents that had been electronically filed. Other than that, he reported little trouble getting information from the court.

“Despite the circumstances, the judges were courteous enough to return my calls,” he said. The court’s physical relocation did not impede coverage. When the court suspended operations temporarily, there were no cases to cover. And, once court proceedings resumed, case information became available over the phone and Internet again.

When Hurricane Rita struck, however, Council had a harder time accessing needed information. “Right before Rita hit, a lawsuit I was covering was supposed to settle. I had trouble locating people for comment after the storm because everyone left the area, but that was as bad as it got.”

Fortunately, the Texas court’s existing infrastructure helped the appellate court run. While New Orleans area reporters have to travel further to cover oral arguments, reporters should be able to access all electronically filed documents in the Fifth Circuit because the Houston clerk’s office has taken over management of case filings.

The other federal courts in New Orleans are operating in borrowed courthouses while they try to return to normal. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana is operating at the same location as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, where it accepts filings and holds proceedings.

On the state level, most of the courts in New Orleans have resumed operations, but the Louisiana Supreme Court is closed through Nov. 25, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal was to be closed through at least Oct. 25, perhaps longer.