Wheels of justice drive appeals court from New Orleans to Houston

Jim Greer, Houston Business Journal

Houston is bringing some order to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which is relocating from New Orleans to the Bayou City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The New Orleans building that had housed the Fifth Circuit courthouse and offices has shut down amid the Louisiana city's massive flooding and widespread loss of electricity.

Operations of the key court are expected to reopen in Houston to a broad range of matters on or about Sept. 14. The longtime federal courthouse building on 515 Rusk in downtown Houston will for an unspecified time provide the new home for the Fifth Circuit.

Already operating from the federal court building on Rusk, the displaced appeals court early this week was tending to a select number of cases. But, according to a statement from the Fifth Circuit, these have been limited to "true emergency matters," such as deportation cases with "imminent and confirmed deportation dates" or "death penalty cases with execution dates."

Baton Rouge, La., also came up as a possible site for relocation. Just off interstate 10, west of New Orleans, Baton Rouge has suddenly become Louisiana's most populated city.

The Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in downtown Houston, however, fit the space needs of the Fifth Circuit.

"Our courthouse has the capacity to handle the (appeals court's) personnel here all in one building," says Randy Sorrels, a local attorney who is president of the Houston Bar Association.

So an already big litigation market just got bigger.

All deadlines to file documents with the Fifth Circuit were extended on the heels of Katrina. Deadlines from Aug. 24 through Sept. 30 were pushed back until at least Oct. 3. The deadlines may be extended even more.

Combined with the relaxed filing schedule, the scaling back in Fifth Circuit availability from late August through mid-September sets the stage for a full docket of cases.

"The Fifth Circuit is going to see a bottleneck," Sorrels predicts.

He points out that the court will "have a lot of work when things get up and moving."

Case in point: Bill Boyce, a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski LLP in Houston, says he has a number of cases pending in the Fifth Circuit, including some in the briefing stage and others "waiting for decisions."

Some of the judges who do the deciding have long kept offices, or chambers, in Houston and have traveled between Houston and New Orleans as needed.

The Houston chambers of Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the Fifth Circuit, in early September was fielding death penalty matters and other legal emergencies. The chambers gained logistical importance with Katrina's closing of the John Minor Wisdom Courthouse, until recently the Fifth Circuit's home base in New Orleans.

At the court's newly adopted address, the wheels of justice for the Fifth Circuit will continue to take the form of some familiar delivery trucks.

"Their Federal Express deliveries every day would put a medium-sized corporation to shame, or even a large corporation," says Sorrels, a partner at Houston's Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Matthews & Friend.

Courts of appeals such as the Fifth Circuit are the most powerful courts this side of the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite their rank, some Fifth Circuit judges personally couldn't circumvent the wrath of Katrina.

"Three of the judges lost their homes," says Sorrels.