How is the New Orleans justice system going to function? “I have no guidelines for this,” Calvin Johnson, 58, chief judge of the Orleans Parish criminal court, told he Los Angeles Times. “I have to make it up as I go along. I have no book to look at.” The crisis comes five months after the Louisiana Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that the state’s indigent defense system, which represents 80% of the defendants, was fundamentally flawed. The court said the obligation of providing a functional indigent system belongs “squarely on the shoulders of the Legislature,” which “may be in breach of that duty.”
The hurricane recovery effort will only exacerbate the fiscal crisis, say judges and legislators. The system is funded primarily by traffic ticket revenue, never a reliable source to begin with and now far less so. “The financing of our system is suspect,” Supreme Court Justice Catherine Kimbell said in an interview. Judge Johnson hopes hopes to resume court hearings by Friday, using a courtroom in Plaquemine, 94 miles from New Orleans. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has suspended deadlines in court cases until Sept. 25. If that order is extended, defense lawyers are likely to argue that it violates a client’s right to a speedy trial. “There is no provision in the Constitution that says it is suspended if there is a disaster,” said New Orleans defender Richard Teissier.