Emergency Management in the Courts: Trends after September 11 and Hurricane Katrina*

Article excerpt

This article is an overview of trends in emergency preparedness and management in the courts, with a particular focus on trends following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We describe the common features of disasters and of the management guidance available to courts. Of particular note is the degree to which Katrina was a catastrophic event that affected a broad geographical area, while the September 11 attacks constituted a major disaster but without the widespread damage done by a major hurricane or earthquake. While much emergency planning is based in anecdote and experience, we argue that there are important research questions contained in many plans and planning-guidance documents relating to the nature and extent of emergency planning in the courts, its variability across jurisdictions, and the extent to which other branches of government consider court security a priority. Further research in these questions would better inform efforts to plan and to encourage planning for extreme events that could affect the courts.

The courts serve a central role in our constitutional democracy. Under the rule of law, people rely very heavily on the courts and on courthouses, all of which are subject to various natural, technological, or humanly caused disasters or catastrophes. Preparedness for such events is a vital government function, but it is particularly important for the courts because they must remain open to the extent possible to ensure that all people's legal rights are protected.

This article summarizes significant managerial trends in disaster management and the courts. September 11 plays a prominent role in this discussion, because much of what we present here is a summary of court emergency-planning efforts that were a direct result of September 11 (see Leibowitz, 2001). September 11 was a major focusing event (Birkland, 1997) that focused more attention on emergency management than any other event in the previous twenty-five years. The other disaster examined here is Hurricane Katrina, which so damaged both state and federal courts (as well as New Orleans and its environs generally) that many courts were not yet fully operational more than a year after the disaster.

This article thus expands upon an earlier report prepared for the Center for Court Innovation (Birkland, 2004) by considering the range of planning guidance and actions that have been taken by courts to address actual or potential disaster. The research presented here is based on secondary sources, particularly the legal press, although much of the discussion about the courts in New Orleans and in New York City after the September 11 attacks comes from interviews with court officials. The article concludes with a brief consideration of research questions that have arisen from the September 11 and Hurricane Katrina disasters; we argue that what has heretofore been anecdotal evidence of different levels of planning and preparedness could be better understood with systematic research.


Since at least 1989, in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake in California, the power of natural and humanly caused disasters to disrupt the courts' business has been understood (see generally Birkland, 1998; Bovum, 1998; Wasby, 1998a, b; Salokar, 1998; Pedeliski, 1998). A number of major disasters, and one catastrophic natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, have had a substantial influence on the administration of justice in the communities where they struck (see Table 1).

All the events noted in Table 1 differ in important ways. However, they also have several elements in common, including the significant disruption of normal functions of government and the shifting of priorities to respond to the disaster; considerable economic disruption, ranging from business interruption to labor shortages caused by evacuations; and the extent of social disruption, including deaths and injuries, the displacement of people from their homes, uncertainty about future risks, and uncertainty about how people's lives would be during and after the recovery from the event. …