Not surprisingly, Louisiana’s legal system is in a mess. At one detention center cited by the New York Times, there are now 200 new inmates who arrived hot, hungry, and exhausted on buses after being evacuated from flooded jails in New Orleans. There is no paperwork on charges, no judge to hear cases, no courthouse 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.
More than a third of Louisiana’s lawyers have lost their offices. Some courthouses have been flooded, imperiling files, records, and documents. Court proceedings 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. The Louisiana Supreme Court is moving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is moving to Houston, and electronic technology has allowed lawyers and courts to save files and documents in a way that would have been impossible in the past. The biggest immediate problem is with criminal courts in southern Louisiana, with thousands of detainees awaiting hearings and trials who have been thrust into a legal limbo without courts, trials, or lawyers.