Saturday, September 10, 2005

Louisiana’s legal system remains paralyzed by Hurricane Katrina, but dozens of federal court cases disrupted by the storm are being put back on track by emergency legislation allowing judges and courts to relocate.

The most high-profile cases affected involve hundreds of federal lawsuits over Merck & Co.’s painkiller Vioxx, which were in the pre-trial phase at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans when the storm hit.

Emergency legislation signed by President Bush on Friday allows federal courts to conduct business outside their territorial jurisdiction. Three locations being considered for the Vioxx trial in Louisiana are Baton Rouge, Houma or Lafayette.

The judge in the Vioxx lawsuits, centered on claims that the drug caused patients’ heart attacks and other health problems, began temporarily shifting operations to Houston last week, according to reports.

Merck reportedly has assured investors that the Nov. 28 trial date for the cases won’t change, but the judge, the company and the plaintiff’s attorneys haven’t yet decided which of the three alternate cities will be chosen for the trial.

Preparations are under way “to move about 60 district court judges and employees to Lafayette, where the federal judiciary has leased space,” said a statement by the administrative arm of the federal courts system in Washington. “About 35 persons will be relocated in Houma, and about a dozen in Baton Rouge.”

The hurricane also forced the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which handles cases from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, out of its home in John Minor Wisdom U.S. Courthouse in New Orleans. The appeals court will shift to Houston for three months, then be relocated to Baton Rouge, along with the federal bankruptcy court.

One of the problems in criminal cases will be pulling together juries in the new locations that accurately represent the peers of a given defendant — a constitutional right of anyone facing trial.

“That’s a logistical problem, but we’re working on it,” said Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the federal court system.

Another central challenge is “moving over 100 employees total out of New Orleans … as far away as Houston,” he said. “You can’t require [them] to show up for work in Houston or Baton Rouge in total disregard that the person may not have a home to live in.”

As the federal courts reorganize, massive hurdles remain at the local level, particularly with dozens of criminal suspects who were awaiting trial on the storm’s eve, and others arrested during the looting that came afterward.

And, among the court buildings damaged in the hurricane was the Louisiana Supreme Court, which likely lost files and evidence boxes.

An executive order last week by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco suspended all court operations in the state through Sept. 25, saying the “destruction and disruption of services and infrastructure to our system of justice caused by Hurricane Katrina will have a profound impact on the basic rights to an untold number of persons unless action is taken.”

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