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Courts face unique challenges

Law permits federal courts affected by hurricane to move

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Judiciary (system of justice)
Alabama

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hurricane Katrina's long-reaching effects have even ravaged the federal and state court systems in areas trying to recover from one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.

With many courts along the Gulf Coast damaged by winds or floodwaters, judicial officials are looking for new venues to hear appeals and hold jury trials.

On Friday, President Bush signed into law the Federal Judiciary Emergency Special Sessions Act of 2005, which allows federal courts to operate outside their jurisdictions in the event of a disaster.

The law allows a federal appeals court to hold sessions "at any place outside the circuit" if the chief judge or the next highest-ranking person available determines the court cannot operate in its jurisdiction due to "emergency circumstances."

"The court may transact any business at a special session outside the circuit that it might transact at a regular session," according to the law.

The law also applies to U.S. district courts and bankruptcy courts.

With New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has moved temporarily to Houston, Texas. Other federal courts also have found temporary homes.

The bill was first proposed in June, but Katrina spurred its passage.

"The recent impact of Hurricane Katrina on the federal courts in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi has increased the urgency of congressional action regarding this proposal," the law says.

Federal courts are not the only ones facing hurdles. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Friday that state and county courts face unique problems.

"There really is no precedent for this kind of destruction, so every possible solution is a new solution," Toobin said on "Lou Dobbs Tonight."

"One idea, move the New Orleans courts wholesale to another city, even another state."

Logistical issues would be just the first problem, Toobin said.

Court records have been destroyed by floodwaters. Witnesses have been displaced and relocated throughout the country. Other witnesses have died.

It might even be difficult to determine what crimes a prisoner has been charged with, Toobin said.

"It's a new legal world on the Gulf Coast," he said, "and no one knows what the rules are yet.

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