- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

As Congress convenes to pass an emergency hurricane-relief bill this morning, it should immediately fix a legal technicality that is preventing federal courts in New Orleans from functioning normally outside the city. Because of language in the U.S. Code, the city’s district and bankruptcy courts are not allowed to operate from nearby cities like Baton Rouge or Shreveport. There are three federal courthouses in New Orleans, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. As long as federal courts are tied up, important criminal and civil cases will languish. With estimates of months before the city is inhabitable again, legal disaster looms.

To prevent that from happening, Congress should insert emergency territorial-jurisdiction language into today’s bill to be passed to President Bush for his signature. A spokesman for Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, told The Washington Times yesterday that his office plans to wait until next week to introduce legislation to correct the problem. In the long run a few days might not matter. But no one wants to keep the people of New Orleans waiting longer than necessary to return to normal. Better to act sooner than later.

Acceptable language is already available: H.R. 1751, the Secure Access to Justice and Court Protection Act of 2005, allows the courts to hold special sessions outside usual locations if the most senior judge determines “that, because of emergency conditions, no location within the circuit is reasonably available where such special sessions could he held.” Mr. Sensenbrenner’s spokesman tells us next week’s bill will be similar to H.R. 1751 but will also contain language applying to U.S. magistrates. All fine and good, but again, the sooner the better.

With New Orleans’ legal system ground to a halt, we call on Congress to do whatever it can to help the city return to business as usual — and to do so today.

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