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March 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

Calling for Jurors Post-Katrina


Six months after last year's destructive hurricane season, district courts in Louisiana and Mississippi are adapting to their post-Katrina world as they begin to hold trials once again.

Amazingly, considering the devastation around it, the district court in New Orleans was able to empanel grand juries in December and February and hold jury trials in January.

In fact, one of the first things Jury Administrator Marianne Judice did on returning to the Eastern District of Louisiana in early November, was mail out 14,000 juror questionnaires to add to the court's qualifi ed wheel of jurors.

According to Judice, the district court usually calls up 75 jurors to empanel a grand jury. Post-Katrina, they're calling 250 prospective jurors, 120 of whom might actually appear. Normally, the district has a 10-15 percent no-show rate. "We're calling a few more jurors than normal," said Chief Deputy Clerk of Court Gene Smith, "but we're getting a response sufficient to hold grand jury and petit juries."

One reason the district may still be able to gather jurors is that while New Orleans is the largest parish, it is one of 13 different parishes from which the court may call jurors. That's not to say New Orleans residents aren't being called.

"We had a gentleman from New Orleans called for jury duty, in fact a maintenance employee of the City of New Orleans, who is living on one of the cruise ships docked here for those left homeless," says Judice. "He still showed up for jury service. I felt like giving him a special award."

Right now, the biggest problem is the mail.

"Our December 6th mail just arrived!" said Judice. "Before the main post office in New Orleans re-opened a few weeks ago, the mail was being re-routed through Baton Rouge, Houston, returned to Baton Rouge, then on to St. Rose, Louisiana, and it created enormous delays. Of all the issues we've had, the greatest challenge has been who is actually getting their mail."

Still, somehow, the mail is going through. Judice tells of phone calls as jury questionnaires, summonses, and notices reached evacuated residents as far away as Baltimore, Pittsburgh, California, and Oregon.

"I don't know how to explain it," she says, "but people are getting the questionnaires and jury summonses, even if it takes weeks to get the mail. Then they contact the court with their current whereabouts."

"The city is still a nightmare," says Smith, whose own home remains without electricity. "We were fortunate that the courthouse was in an area of the city with little damage." The federal courthouse has even been able to help out the New Orleans criminal court, whose bottom floor was flooded and must be rewired. The criminal court began jury trials at the U.S. Courthouse in March.

In the Middle District of Louisiana, jury administrator Rhonda Martin is seeing more people asking to be excused from jury duty, mainly for hardships.

"These are people who are helping out in the disaster areas, people who have been transferred to work elsewhere or who had found permanent residences elsewhere," says Martin. "Workplaces are operating without their full staff or have extra work as a result of Katrina. All of these things put an extra burden upon employers and they find it almost impossible to do without an employee for jury duty."

The rippling effect of disasters of the magnitude of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita does not end when the storm ends. "Everyone's life has been affected by additional worries and responsibilities," says Martin. "We must be compassionate, but find ways to get the job done everywhere. . . and that includes making sure the court still operates smoothly and in a timely manner."

In the Southern District of Mississippi, the Gulfport courthouse, damaged by storm-driven water, remains closed until June or July 2006. Juries are being empanelled in the district's other divisions, according to Clerk of Court J.T. Noblin. He anticipates that once they are back in the Gulfport courthouse, a greater-than-normal volume of questionnaires will be sent to prospective jurors.

"Although state court jury administration differs somewhat from the federal system," Noblin says, "the preliminary state court experience in the area has been instructive for the federal court, when trials resume. Other than in criminal cases, however, there doesn't seem to be a great rush to go to trial. Lawyers and parties seem content to catch their breath," Noblin observed.

"Based on what we have seen thus far, we are cautiously optimistic that in June, when the courthouse is scheduled to reopen, we will have a pretty predictable juror response. Of course," Noblin concluded, "summer starts hurricane season. We'll see."