New Orleans Courts Come Back to Life

Like almost everything else in New Orleans, the city's criminal courts system came to a halt after Katrina. The city is taking an important step toward getting that system running with the start of jury trials. Steve Inskeep talks to Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson about the courts and their backlog of an estimated 6,000 cases.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

New Orleans may take another step today in its recovery from the last disaster. The Orleans Parrish Criminal District Court is scheduled to hold its first jury trial since Hurricane Katrina. Until a few days ago, the head of the court system was Judge Calvin Johnson. He delayed his plans to step down so he could oversee the recovery.

Judge CALVIN JOHNSON (Criminal District Court, Orleans Parish, New Orleans): It has been the most difficult nine months of my life. It has been truly the most difficult nine months of my entire life.

INSKEEP: In the days after the storm, Judge Johnson went to the court building to recover computers and other key material. He came and left by boat.

Judge JOHNSON: I saw buildings surrounded by water, and that's the last glimpse I had of my building for months.

INSKEEP: When you have walked around your court building that you were using before Hurricane Katrina, what do you see?

Judge JOHNSON: I see now a beehive of activity, work going on all around our building, in and out of it. And we are holding court. I mean, it's not what we were doing before Katrina, but at least we're doing something.

INSKEEP: Now there must be an immense buildup of cases, prisoners, and other problems to deal with.

Judge JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. Because of the lack of jail space, for instance, we had to ship out those individuals who should be incarcerated in the city of New Orleans, we had to ship them out to other facilities. And we still haven't gotten them back because of the lack of jail space. And so that contributes to our inability to operate in an efficient fashion, because a number of individuals must be transported from all over Louisiana back to New Orleans just for their day in court.

INSKEEP: Now Judge, you've just explained some of the reasons that you need to get jury trials going again as quickly as possible, but are you really ready to get going?

Judge JOHNSON: We are ready. And this is where sometimes it's confusing when we talk about a system. The court really consists of a judge, a minute clerk, and a court reporter. That's the court. The other aspects of a court are its ancillary pieces. You have the sheriff, the DA, the public defender, the clerk. We actually, we're in control of none of that.

But we are dependent upon each of those entities to do what they're supposed to do. And if they...

INSKEEP: Well let's ask about - well let me ask about another one of those parts, a very critical one - defense attorneys, public defenders. All but about a half dozen or so of the public defenders in New Orleans were let go due to lack of funds.

Judge JOHNSON: And that became just a true stumbling block to an efficient operation of a system. Without having defense lawyers, without having those who can represent the indigent - and we had a system where about 85 percent of the individuals who came through the system were indigent - well, without having lawyers to represent them, we can't operate. If that piece can't function, then the court can't function.

INSKEEP: Granting that, you're the one who'll decide whether to go forward with trials. Are there enough public defenders to represent defendants adequately when your trials go forward?

Judge JOHNSON: Well, I think now they are, in the sense that there are enough for us to begin. But now, are there enough to adequately handle the number of individuals who need representation? No. But they're in that process of making themselves new again.

INSKEEP: The Department of Justice, as you probably know, put out a report last month saying that what was necessary was at least 70 public defenders in New Orleans. When I see it, there are thousands and thousands of defendants. It's hard for me as a layman to believe that even 70 is enough. Do you have anywhere close to 70?

Judge JOHNSON: Oh, no, indeed. And honestly, in terms of, just like McDonalds' inability to hire workers, the Public Defenders office is having a problem finding lawyers. And so to get up to that number 70, it's going to take a real effort and a period of time.

But, heck, for our purposes, naw, if they can get up to 20, that would be a considerable improvement.

INSKEEP: Judge, what's the first case up on your docket?

Judge JOHNSON: A murder trial that I really think is going to happen in the month of June, where I know all of the necessary witnesses have been found and either are in the city of New Orleans, or are capable of coming to the city of New Orleans. So that trial should happen.

INSKEEP: Calvin Johnson was, until just a few days ago, the Chief Judge of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court.

Judge, thanks very much.

Judge JOHNSON: Thank you.

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