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November 01, 2013

Are You Ready?

By Justice Robert H. Edmunds Jr.

Around 1990, when I was a U.S. Attorney, I returned one afternoon from an out-of-town meeting to notice that the federal building where my office was located appeared oddly different. As I got closer, I saw that the windows were broken out, the building stained by smoke, and the whole area cordoned off by police and fire personnel. While I was gone, a fire had broken out. Though the fire itself had been contained, mail chutes in the 1920s-vintage building had acted as chimneys, distributing smoke into every nook and cranny with enthusiastic efficiency. A thick layer of grimy soot covered every piece of paper, every computer, every stick of furniture.

The building housed a federal courtroom, chambers for two district court judges, the U.S. Attorney’s office, military recruiters, the U.S. Marshall Service, and numerous other federal agencies. None was adequately prepared. For instance, in my office, in addition to the obvious losses of personal and public property, we had to deal with having repair and recovery personnel working in areas that contained information and materials that were secret, sensitive, or confidential. Because we were caught off guard, courthouse personnel struggled to respond to the damage and disruption. We did not know what to do and, as a result, our efforts were uncoordinated and even somewhat chaotic. To this day, I recall the comments of a federal judge whose chambers had been ruined. Comparing a photo taken at the downtown fire scene with one taken from the same vantage point three years later, he noted with some asperity that he could see three skyscrapers had been built in that time, but the courthouse was still under repair. Years passed before the last effects of that fire finally faded from sight.

Disasters can strike at any time. A disaster can be as lovely as an unexpected snowfall, as mundane as a broken water pipe in the computer room or over a North Carolina Supreme Court justice’s desk, or as terrifying as an act of war. Disasters can come in the form of fire (Chatham County, North Carolina), hurricane (New Orleans; New Jersey), meteoric explosion (Chelyabinsk), tornado (Norman, Oklahoma), reactor meltdown (Chernobyl; Fukushima), terrorism (New York City), earthquake (Seattle, Washington), you name it. The list is endless.

For the unprepared, the effects of a disaster can linger. As lawyers and judges, we find that records and documents have been damaged or irretrievably lost. Trials are interrupted. Equipment is ruined. Citizens discover that courts are inaccessible. Death and taxes are inevitable, but death certificates and tax records may be unavailable. Disasters disrupt the smooth and reliable access to justice on which American society relies.

While we may not be able to predict what form a disaster may take, we can make plans to deal with the aftermath. Such a plan, frequently called a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), prepares courts to continue to function in case of adversity, even if the particular catastrophe was not foreseen. For instance, only weeks before the courthouse fire described in Susan Owens’ article found in this issue, Chatham County officials enacted a COOP designed to deal with pestilence. When the courthouse burned, the COOP was modified with a minimum of fuss and operations continued.

In this issue of The Judges’ Journal, we explore disaster preparedness. John Ort’s article provides a comprehensive framework, setting out the many issues that those preparing a COOP should keep in mind. Paul Manolopoulos and David Reynolds share lessons learned the hard way when an earthquake struck Seattle. Maryland’s Judge William D. Missouri and North Carolina’s Susan Owens demonstrate how, in the face of two eerily similar fires, effective COOPs kept the courts going.

A critical lesson from all these articles is the importance of leadership. Judges are natural leaders in the legal community. We have a responsibility both to ensure that our courts are prepared for the worst and, when the worst happens, to determine that the COOP is implemented and that all the parties are executing their responsibilities. Judges have the authority to make these things happen.

The articles in this issue will help judges see the roles they can play. In addition, it should be apparent that a COOP does little good when it lies dormant in someone’s desk drawer. A COOP is a living document that requires regular updating as circumstances change and as court personnel turn over. The experiences of those of us who have been through a disaster should convince readers of The Judges’ Journal of the value of preparation. This issue can help show the way.