Nearly eight months after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, exacerbating and exposing every weakness in the structure of government, law and order, Judge Lynda Van Davis presides over incessant chaos in a borrowed courtroom with dwindling resources, says the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The public defender’s office is down from 42 attorneys to seven attorneys, working all 12 sections of Criminal District Court, from two small rooms at the Louisiana Bar Association’s office.
Stripped to its skeleton, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court operates out of U.S. District Court in the city’s downtown, worlds away from its old courthouse that remains flood-stained. The judges press on, but can’t get far when every component of the justice system, from police and prosecutors to mental health services and appeals, is recovering from disaster. “We’re on life support,” Chief Judge Calvin Johnson said. “Sometimes we can breathe without the machine, but we’re on life support.” Jury trials, which once happened daily, have yet to resume since Katrina. Public defenders are scarce, leaving at least 1,750 broke defendants locked away for months without even seeing a lawyer, let alone discussing their cases with one. Inmates are scattered across Louisiana, forcing the state corrections department to shuttle handcuffed, orange-suited men and women from various lockups back and forth to New Orleans.