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January|February 2006
Tribunal on Trial David Bosco
A Court in a Storm Aaron Kuriloff
To Have and Hold a Green Card Melissa Nann Burke
A Fix for Junkies Jay Dixit
Setback in Stone Collin Campbell
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
A Wink and a Nod By Len Costa

A Court in a Storm

Hurricane victims find protection and prosecution behind the walls of a Louisiana courthouse.

Aaron Kuriloff

ST. BERNARD PARISH LIES IN THE COASTAL MARSHES OF LOUISIANA, just east of New Orleans. It is a blue-collar suburb of more than 65,000 people, many of them fishermen and oil-refinery workers. On its Plain of Chalmette, Andrew Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans 191 years ago, defeating the British and ending the War of 1812. Today, Chalmette is the parish seat. Near its center, just opposite the levee holding back the Mississippi River, stands the parish courthouse, an Art Deco edifice built in 1939 of gray stone, concrete, and rebar. In 1965, it was one of the few structures to survive Hurricane Betsy unscathed, which is why, as Hurricane Katrina barreled toward St. Bernard Parish 40 years later, Judge Kirk Vaughn concluded that his tiny courtroom on the building's second floor was the safest place to be.

St. Bernard's voters have kept Vaughn on the state District Court bench for 15 years—longer than any other judge in the parish. It is a distinction that no doubt derives from the laconic 55-year-old's talent for resolving disputes at a brisk, inexorable pace. He prepared for Katrina by clearing the docket, working into the night on Sunday, August 28, until the local jail was empty and the prisoners were on their way to safety. He had finished by the time the hurricane made landfall early Monday morning. Vaughn's wife, son, and daughter, as well as his son's girlfriend, joined him in his office next to the courtroom, and the three-story building's thick walls and roof muffled the wind and rain. Around 8 a.m., a levee broke on the Industrial Canal to the west, and, as water surged over the adjacent neighborhoods, residents fled to the courthouse for shelter. They came by the dozens in trucks and on foot, telling of torrents and walls of water and of buildings collapsing beneath them. They bedded down on floors, in jury boxes, anywhere they could find space. And as water streamed under the building's heavy front doors, it became clear that the business of the courthouse was no longer justice.

St. Bernard Parish may have suffered from Katrina as much as any region in greater New Orleans. At least 123 people died there, and while the courthouse stood up to the elements, almost all of the other 27,000 or so stores, houses, and public buildings were destroyed. Waterways border all four sides of St. Bernard, and levees broke on three. Floods inundated the parish to a depth of 20 feet, submerging single-story structures and overwhelming rescue workers. The notion of maintaining any semblance of law and order seemed absurd at the time, and yet, to a remarkable degree, Vaughn and the people who worked by his side kept the legal system intact.

The levee breach along the Industrial Canal was an early sign of disaster. The water rose so fast that it trapped 11 St. Bernard sheriff's detectives on the second floor of their office near the railroad tracks bordering New Orleans. The unnerved detectives radioed the courthouse for Sheriff Jack Stephens, a 6 foot 4 inch former high school lineman who approaches problems the way he once approached opposing running backs. Stephens grabbed an assistant and navigated a small boat through the flooded streets, reaching the trapped detectives within minutes. He pulled them through a second-story window and whisked them to the courthouse.

Minutes before the courthouse also started to flood, Vaughn left to move his car from a nearby parking lot to a spot above the rising water. As he opened the car door, puddles splashed around his ankles. "Next thing I knew, water was coming into the car," he said, describing the short drive to higher ground. "And by the time I got out, it was coming over the wheels." Back at the courthouse, black, muddy pools spread under the building's front doors, across the marble floors, and down three steps to the clerk of courts' office and record room. Thousands of documents were saturated. By nightfall, the water stood three feet deep on the first floor and continued to rise. The courthouse had no lights or electricity and scant supplies of canned food and drink. The taps stopped running when the water mains broke. Toilets overflowed, sending sewage into the stagnant floodwater. Dozens of dogs and cats roamed the hallways, and smoke from cigarettes hung thick in the air. An elderly woman died—of exposure, stress, or a pre-existing medical condition; nobody knew for sure—leaving behind her weeping husband. She was laid to rest temporarily in the back corner of the state's largest courtroom, in the wan light from decorative-glass windows.

Still, the business of criminal justice carried on. Sheriff's deputies conducting rescue operations in small boats arrested one man who had apparently looted global positioning systems and other navigational gear from flooded retailers and wrecked work boats that had washed into town. The deputies also brought in several men and women who had gotten drunk and started fights at rescue shelters. The Louisiana rules of criminal procedure require that all suspects face charges before a magistrate judge within 72 hours or be set free. So Vaughn, working off a yellow legal pad and dressed in the jeans he had worn since Katrina hit land two days before, sat in his clothes-strewn office and held hearings to approve or dismiss the charges against the suspects.

It was little more than "frontier justice," Vaughn explained later. The suspects did not have legal representation, because no defense attorneys were at the courthouse or reachable in the outside world. Criminal records were soaked, so the judge pieced together the suspects' arrest histories by relying on his memory and the files of District Attorney Jack Rowley, who had been with Vaughn since Sunday. Nobody discussed whether the hearings were constitutional. "I wish we could say we did that," said Vaughn, "but we had no time." In any event, the jail had become an emergency medical facility, so all the cases ended the same way: suspects released on bail or their own recognizance, then turned over to deputies for evacuation.

After several days of the makeshift hearings, Vaughn received notice of a state Supreme Court order halting all legal proceedings in the greater New Orleans area. The damage that the hurricane and floods had inflicted on the legal system was just too great, the court concluded. Besides, an emergency order from the governor's office soon suspended filing deadlines and statutes of limitation, so "there was no pressing need to meet deadlines," Vaughn said. The judge finished his last hearing on September 1, four days after his vigil at the courthouse began, and set about the business of pressing federal officials for the people and equipment necessary to make the courthouse run again.

Crime, of course, did not stop. Residents were ordered to leave St. Bernard a few days later, and sheriff's deputies guarded the bridges to the parish against the residents' return. In mid-September, a truck slipped into a convoy of pickups carrying contractors. When the truck tried to leave the parish a few hours later, it was stopped, and the three people inside were searched. Sheriff's deputies found muddy tools, three ounces of cocaine, and other items apparently looted from the deserted houses and stores. With legal proceedings suspended and the parish jails sheltering the injured, the deputies were forced to improvise. They ferried the suspects to a jail in neighboring Plaquemines Parish, and then had them moved upriver to St. Gabriel Parish for a magistrate hearing. When the suspects couldn't come up with bail, they were transferred to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The prison houses some of the state's most dangerous criminals, including those on death row, making the incarceration of mere suspects there "not really a good thing," explained Col. Richard Baumy of the sheriff's office.

In late September, Vaughn stopped spending nights on an air mattress in his office and, his house destroyed, moved to the Scotia Prince, a retired ferry docked nearby on the Mississippi River. His family had left the courthouse earlier in the month to stay temporarily at a home north of Lake Pontchartrain, but Vaughn stayed to help rebuild the judicial system, living on chicken and jugs of water supplied by the National Guard.

By mid-October, the water had drained from the courthouse, electrical power had been restored, and the clerk's office had opened again. Clerk of Courts Lena Torres sent sodden case records to an ice cream company for preservation in a freezer. They were later taken to be freeze-dried in Texas and, if they are not much the worse for wear, will return to Torres when business approaches normal in St. Bernard.

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