NCSC readies courts for natural disasters

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OCTOBER 2, 2018

NCSC helps courts prepare for disaster

Last year’s wildfires in California destroyed the houses of three Sonoma County Superior County judges, enveloped the Santa Rosa courthouse with smoke for weeks and forced the deputies assigned to that courthouse to leave and help other first responders. 

The wildfires closed the courthouse for two weeks, leading to a caseload nightmare and initial confusion about how to notify the public about rescheduled court dates.

Stories like this – and in other places that recently have had to deal with the aftermath of natural disasters – made it clear to NCSC staffers that many courts need help to better prepare and better respond to emergencies that force courts to close. NCSC recently received a $280,000 grant from the State Justice Institute to help court officials in hurricane-vulnerable places such as Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and in California (wildfires) and Hawaii (volcanoes).

“We should be able to do a lot with this grant to help these six states and territories,” said Nathan Hall, a NCSC senior consultant who is coordinating the work. “…The courts are sometimes the stepchildren of government and aren’t always in on the (emergency management) planning done by local and state government agencies.”

The first step will be a “lessons-learned” summit early next year in Denver, where court officials from those six states and territories will share what has worked and what hasn’t.

Sometime after the summit, NCSC consultants will travel to the six states and territories to review their natural disaster and emergency management plans. The consultants will also make recommendations to update and improve the plans, known as continuity of operations plans, or COOPs.

The grant will also allow NCSC to update its COOP template, which is 10 years old. Hall said he hopes that an updated COOP template will identify essential steps that court officials should take, and help them know how to connect with state and federal government agencies that can assist them before, during and after natural disasters.

“Court administrators have to know so much,” Hall said. “We need to give them the tools to quickly and easily access the information they need (to get help).”

Finally, NCSC will use a portion of the SJI grant to package the information and make it user friendly, creating an interactive COOP template, and maybe even an interactive website that court officials can turn to for updated information.

Hall said the project may also end up helping the courts in the Carolinas, parts of which were devastated by Hurricane Florence.

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Reading Room

Sarah Redfield’s Enhancing Justice: Reducing Bias (American Bar Association, 2018) was written by a diverse team of authors, including judges, lawyers, and college professors, with expertise relevant to understanding and improving implicit biases. Their work offers both perspective and practical advice from their disciplines and their collaboration. While not all the authors agree on each possible approach, the focus is on best practices, which can enable courts to lessen the impact of implicit bias. The book seeks to increase knowledge and awareness of implicit bias, improve the understanding and practice of procedural fairness and of culturally competent communication across cultures, and promote a sustained commitment to mindfulness. This book is available from NCSC's Library.

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