Houston Chronicle - "Task force devising courts disaster plan"

News Article

By:  Wallace Jefferson
Date: May 8, 2008
Location: El Paso, TX


Houston Chronicle - "Task force devising courts disaster plan"

An emergency management official recommended having alternative sites to hold court and being ready to move there within hours as part of a disaster response plan for Texas courts.

Daniel Medrano, assistant coordinator for the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management, suggested makeshift court rooms could be set up in schools, churches, recreation centers. Officials should "be ready to move there in 12 hours and stay at least 30 days," Medrano told a task force drafting the plan during a meeting Thursday, the El Paso Times reported for its online edition.

The meeting was the first of a series of planned across the state by the Task Force to Ensure Judicial Readiness in Times of Emergency. The 16-member panel was created at the urging of Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court.

Jefferson said he has seen how disasters, natural or manmade, can disrupt the court system.

"So many lawyers called us after Hurricane Rita and said, 'Our courthouse is closed and a (legal) deadline is coming up. What do we do to protect the rights of our clients?'" Jefferson said. "It's not about judges, or courthouses or lawyers. It's about the citizens of the state of Texas and insuring that their rights are protected in time of emergency."

A working legal system also would be needed in times of disaster to help with issues such as assigning orphaned children to foster care.

Hurricane Katrina flooded the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2005.

The following year, Medrano's El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management led a successful evacuation of downtown El Paso when a Juarez dam threatened to break. It could have gushed millions of gallons of water across the border, flooding the first floor of the county courthouse where records are kept.