The difficult and tragic hurricane season, which closed Texas’s federal and state courthouses last month, has now done the same to the courthouses in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. (A courthouse in Florida remains closed in the wake of Hurricane Irma as well.) In light of the terrible destruction on those islands, the closing of a courthouse by itself is bottom-page news. But in times of crisis, courthouses are needed — both practically and symbolically — to assure citizens that the rule of law remains in place. Here’s hoping that the residents of all affected areas find strength, rebuild, and restore their communities.
The devastation in the Houston area from Hurricane Harvey has extended to the state and local court systems, which have effectively been shut down. State courthouses in Harris County, Texas are closed all week, and several other counties are scrambling to shift proceedings to available venues. The federal courts in the Southern District of Texas also suspended operations for several days, a major development given that the district receives more than 14,000 filings a year. The Eastern District of Texas and Western District of Louisiana also closed courthouses in light of the hurricane.
In the wake of real tragedy along Harvey’s path, the inconvenience of a closed courthouse is admittedly relatively minor. But as those in the Gulf Coast begin the long process of reconstructing their communities, an operational and fully functioning court system will be a welcome development.
Sometimes relatively insignificant events serve as a reminder of the organizational nature of courts. For example, they sometimes have unexpected snow days. And, like the rest of us, they have to catch up when they reopen.