Hurricane Katrina hits Mississippi judicial system hard

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Published: September 12,2005

Hurricane Katrina greatly disrupted many Mississippi attorneys’ legal practices, temporarily halting progress through the pipeline of the judicial system.

“Hurricane Katrina has crippled Mississippi’s justice system,” said Jackson attorney John Mooney. “It has brought to a standstill the electronic filing of documents in both the Northern and Southern Districts of Mississippi.” A trial scheduled to begin September 6 was postponed, “for one reason because of the inability of the court to send notification to potential jurors for the trial.”

Until further notice, the Gulfport federal courthouse is closed. At press time, the Hattiesburg federal courthouse was closed until power could be restored. The Mississippi Bar reported that the Jackson clerk’s office is accepting filings for both the Hattiesburg and Gulfport divisions, and that captions should read precisely as if they were filed in Gulfport or Hattiesburg.

Even though system administrators were scrambling to have it restored, the electronic filing system was not functioning at press time. As a stopgap measure, filings are being hand-delivered or mailed, and the clerk’s office has suggested that attorneys include a note at the top of each pleading explaining that it is not being electronically filed because of the inability to access the filing system as a result of the disaster.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi (msnd.uscourts.gov) could not predict when its telecommunication lines would be restored, and attorneys were advised to expect the court’s electronic case filing and management systems “to be out of service for the foreseeable future.”

Until otherwise directed by the court, attorneys were directed to file all pleadings and case-related documents with the clerk’s office and judges’ chambers in paper format, according to traditional practice standards, and to mail copies of documents and certificates of service to all involved parties. The directive concerns all cases in Oxford, Aberdeen, and Greenville.

“Our major problem is communications, not only in filings, but also in getting the word out about the directives,” said Robert Henry, chief deputy clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, who anticipated having the electronic filing system operational by press time.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals warned attorneys and litigants not to send any filings or documents to New Orleans, and automatically extended all filing deadlines August 24 to September 9. Before filing, attorneys and litigants were urged to check the Internet Web site (www.ca5.uscourts.gov) for additional instructions and information. Emergency matters, such as death penalty cases with execution dates, or deportation matters with imminent and confirmed deportation dates, may be filed by fax or hand-delivered to Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King in Houston, Texas.

Because attorneys, judges, court reporters and trial court clerks had expressed concerns about the disruption of court business as a result of Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Supreme Court extended filing deadlines by 90 days for appeals pending from the 27 South Mississippi counties of the Second Supreme Court District and authorized trial court judges in those counties to use discretion to extend deadlines and reschedule proceedings. The deadlines include filings from August 29 to October 31.

The Mississippi Supreme Court re-opened its offices on September 6 after electricity was restored, the same day Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. also appointed a damage assessment committee to gather information about damage to courthouses in the 15 counties covered in the President’s disaster declaration after Hurricane Katrina. The group will assess structural and equipment damage to courthouses and the capability of trial judges and their staffs to conduct court proceedings in those counties. Supreme Court Justice James E. Graves Jr. will lead the team, which will include Court of Appeals Presiding Judge L. Joseph Lee, Supreme Court Clerk Betty Sephton and Administrative Office of Courts Director Kevin Lackey.

On pending cases, the court cancelled all scheduled oral arguments before the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals in cases from those 27 counties, suspended rules that ordinarily prohibit extensions of time for taking appeals under the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure and suspended certain portions of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure that ordinarily prohibit extensions of time for specific post-trial motions and amendments to trial court orders.

“We’re trying to get the word out as quickly as possible to all concerned parties,” said court spokesperson Beverly Pettigrew Kraft.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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