Are our courts prepared for another Rita?

Gustav, thankfully, wasn’t as bad as feared.  He was plenty bad enough, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Texas has been spared the brunt.  Still, I’m very glad to say that my wife’s grandparents got out of Beaumont and came up here to Tyler.  Being prepared is the sensible thing.

On the subject of preparedness, today seems like a good day to post on the Task Force to Ensure Judicial Readiness in Times of Emergency.  It was formed in November 2007.  The name accurately tells you what the committee is about.  But the name is bureaucratic and, well, lifeless.  Don’t let that fool you.  Chief Justice Jefferson put the work of the Task Force in very human terms in his opening comments at a May, 2008 meeting:

And first, let me start with just an apology. It seems to me I should have been thinking about this from the very beginning. We all should anticipate, be thinking about anticipating emergency situations. But it came most clear to me when I was watching what transpired after Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that New Orleans suffered as a result of it.

And looking at the families on TV standing on rooftops and floating in the lakes that were caused by the levees breaking.

And I wondered, at that time, what are the children going to do? Some of them have lost their parents. How are they going to find them? And you need a judicial system to introduce them into, if necessary, foster care on the road to permanent adoption if their parents are lost.

What happens to those who are involved in the criminal justice system? There were no courthouses open. There were no judges to take arraignments. That has an impact on the safety of the community.

And it seemed to me that judges ought to have a plan in place to take care of that sort of contingency.

And then right after Hurricane Katrina came Hurricane Rita. And we saw the impact of Rita and we saw the impact of Rita on Texas and the devastation it caused. There were so many lawyers that called us after Hurricane Rita hit saying, “What do we do? The courthouse is closed and there is a statutory deadline coming up. How do we protect our client’s interests?”

And so at that point we convened an Emergency Task Force of our Rules Advisory Committee to look at modifying the rules to accommodate that situation.

All of this led me to think the judiciary needs to work and needs to be prepared for not only natural disasters like the hurricanes I mentioned but terrorism. A health pandemic. With the goal that the rule of law is maintained. After all, judges here, members of the armed forces, we swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.

And to do that, we have to have access to justice for our citizens, especially our most vulnerable citizens. And so in the end this is not about courthouses, it is not about judges. It is not even about court personnel. It is about the citizens of the State of Texas and doing our best to ensure that their civil rights are protected.

The work of the Task Force is ongoing.

Update: on a related note, Todd Smith at TexasAppellateLawBlog has posted on the Gustav-related closure of the Fifth Circuit until next week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *