Hurricane Sandy, which caused widespread chaos throughout
the Northeast, has put federal courts based in Manhattan in their worst
operational crisis since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With only gasoline-fueled
generator power and widespread interruptions in Internet and telephone service,
four federal court buildings in Manhattan were closed for a week, except for a
few emergency hearings. Across the East River, a U.S. District Court in
Brooklyn had power but no telephone or Internet.
Judges in America's largest federal trial court struggled
to hold hearings in gloomy spaces lit by emergency lamps. Jurors and witnesses
were scattered across a region stricken by flood damage and transit shutdowns.
Probation officers scrambled to monitor hundreds of criminal defendants who
evacuated their homes or were out of reach because of massive power outages.
"There are no lights in judges' chambers, there are no
phones," New York Southern District Court Executive Edward Friedland said
days after the storm left the region. "We're doing a lot of improvising. Things
that normally take 15 minutes can take an hour."
On Monday, Nov. 5, the first critical steps toward
recovery began. After the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse, a 27-story
court building on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, regained electrical power
over the weekend, the New York Southern District Court and U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Second District resumed full operations. But three other
Manhattan courthouses, including the bankruptcy court and U.S.International
Trade Court, lacked electricity, heat or both, and operations remained severely
limited. And federal courts in Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey also remained
mired in a regionwide transportation crisis that made it difficult for
employees, witnesses and jurors to get to court.
Chief Judge Loretta Preska said the first priority is to
reassemble key players for six to seven jury trials that were in progress when
the storm hit, including a criminal trial she is presiding over that was
getting ready to go to the jury. The case involves the retrial of an attorney
who was convicted for his role in a multi-billion-dollar fraud at the defunct
commodities broker Refco.
"Obviously, we don't want too much time to pass," Preska
said. "All of our cases on trial are in dire straits."
The New York Southern District Court, which handles some
of the nation's most high profile cases, suspended criminal trials for the
first time since the 9/11 attacks, before resuming operations Nov. 5. Preska
also issued orders extending deadlines in pending criminal and civil cases.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the New
York Southern Bankruptcy Court, and the U.S. Court of International Trade, also
lost electricity and stopped public operations while working feverishly to reopen.
(For the status of all federal courts, visit the court locator.)
Even at the height of the post-storm blackout, the
Southern District Court pressed on in a few emergency cases. The day after Hurricane
Sandy left the area, a hearing in a case depended on a telephone conference
call - challenging in a courthouse without telephone service. One of the
litigants finally was able to organize the call on his cell phone. Participants
in the call huddled in front of the bench, straining to hear the conversation.
The following day, an emergency hearing in an
international child abduction case was held in a gloomy courtroom lit only with
a lamp powered by generator. With no audio system, the proceeding was
interrupted as the court reporter paused to ask that witnesses repeat
Away from the public courtrooms, the district's probation
and pretrial office building was completely non-functional. Officers have
worked from home and in government-issued vehicles, trying to track down about
3,800 offenders and defendants under their watch. According to Michael
Fitzpatrick, chief probation officer for the court, 393 medium and high-risk
offenders reside in Manhattan, many beyond oversight because of power outages
and storm evacuations.
"Thanks to the mapping feature of PACTS, our case
tracking system, we know who we need to see. We just have some areas that are
inaccessible," said Fitzpatrick. "We have people out there all day looking."
He added that pretrial investigators are limited in their
ability to prepare case reports for functions such as bail hearings.
The New York Southern District not only has more judges
than any other federal courthouse, it also handles some of the nation's
highest-profile cases. More than 10,000 complaints are filed in this court each
year. The court is in the pretrial phase of United States v. Mustafa, a case
involving an Islamic cleric accused of aiding al Qaeda. Just before the storm,
Rajat Gupta, a former Procter & Gamble CEO and Goldman Sachs chairman, was
sentenced to 2 years in prison for insider trading.
Friedland said that even with generators, the power loss
slowed the most rudimentary court operations. At the Moynihan courthouse, which
houses the Southern District Court and the Court of Appeals, 90 percent of
electrical sockets are dead. Of more than 20 elevators, only three were
functioning the week of the storm. During a bail hearing Tuesday, staffers were
running up and down darkened stairways to bring documents to and from the few
functioning copy machines.
Other necessities also have been disrupted by the power
loss. On Thursday after the storm, Judge Preska roamed the court's hallways,
feeding court staff with pizza and other food she had purchased outside the
Electricity is not the only challenge facing the
Manhattan Courts. Other major challenges will persist even after the power grid
Public transportation remained in disarray inside and
outside the city, including a total shutdown in southern Manhattan, making it
difficult to get employees, jurors and witnesses to the court. A lack of
heat, and in some cases telephone and iInternet service, persisted even after
lights went back on.
A number of steps are being taken to restore order and
create courtroom capacity. Plans were being made to schedule some hearings in
an emergency backup courthouse in White Plains, located north of the city.
Courts outside the city have volunteered space for hearings and for judges to
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and its Judiciary
Emergency Response Team have helped the court get back on its feet,
coordinating communications with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and
others, providing special expedited contract authority, and reestablishing
information technology and web systems.
Chief Judge Preska has been deeply gratified by all the
efforts to keep the justice process moving, even when most of the lights are
"The people who run our building have been splendid,"
Preska said. "The staff has been here day and night."
This article was originally published at the United States Courts
To read about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York's
bankruptcy courts, see the Wall Street Journal Law Blogs article, Bankruptcy Judges Scramble For Courtrooms Post-Sandy.
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It's nuts that a disaster like this can halt judicial operations. It must be grueling to get things operational again