Candace Stockey [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 3L, in New Orleans]: "This week, I, along with our fearless leader, Elizabeth Seitz (Pitt Law 3L), and Andrew Wood (Pitt Law 1L), volunteered at New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC), a non-profit legal aid center. Personally, I have focused on research for an appellate brief regarding an action to establish paternity following the alleged father's death. But here in Louisiana, they call these things "filiation actions." And a motion to dismiss is really called "an exception." Oh yeah, and don't forget that the proper term for a statute of limitations is a "period of prescription."
I can attest to the difficulty that attorneys and law students from the other 49 states have translating the strange version of legalese that is utilized here in the great State of Louisiana. Civil law is similar to our familiar common law system, but it has its own quirks. Here, the law is mainly codified in statutes, compared to our reliance on precedential case law. Common law statutes are written much more broadly, open to interpretation by the judiciary, compared to the precise nature of statutes here. Also, there are many slight eccentricites in the law compared to other states. For example, one unique legal fiction is that a child may have more than one "father" here. Only in Louisiana.
Getting beyond the work I have done in NOLAC's law library and on my laptop, I had the opportunity to staff the Legal Aid table at the Disaster Relief Center (or DRC, a.k.a. "FEMA tent") in St. Bernard Parish yesterday afternoon. Let me briefly set the scene: You drive up to the now-defunct WalMart SuperCenter amid spray-painted signs reading "Hurricane Relief - Enter Here" and "God Bless St. Bernard's." Pulling into the crowded parking lot, you would think that there was a "rollback" sale going on inside WalMart. Actually, it's closed for business, but a yellow and white circus-style tent, complete with a PVC pipe cross at the top, is open for folks to gather free groceries. Next to the grocery tent sits the FEMA tent, which has been described as "one-stop shopping" for those impacted by Katrina.
As you walk through the doors, a security officer searches your belongings for weapons and other prohibited items and you enter a line for an "entrance interview." Folks are given a hot pink form which lists all of the agencies, charities and organizations located around the perimeter of the tent. These include FEMA, of course, the Small Business Administration, the IRS, the EPA, various State agencies, assorted religious charities, and us: Legal Aid. The attorney who brought me to the DRC, Marisa Katz, has been sitting at the Legal Aid table since October 2005. She told me stories of how she would often watch people break down into tears in front of her. This tendancy was exacerbated by the fact that the Legal Aid table is the last one that people visit after making their rounds through the tent. After hearing "no" or "I don't know" in response to their questions over and over, unanswerable questions at the Legal Aid table would simply push them over the edge. Marisa would often go home at the end of the day, overwhelmed, and break down herself. To call this work emotionally draining is quite the understatement. These days, though, as the deadline to apply for a FEMA trailer quickly approaches, most of her work is performed in her capacity as a notary. Apparently, EVERYTHING has to be notarized here in Louisiana. Another random aspect of the civil law system. Marisa notarizes all documents for free, no questions asked. Well, besides those that begin with, "Do you swear and attest that..." or "May I please see your identification?"
As folks exit the FEMA tent, the security officer collects the pink form, which has been checked and initialed by a person at each table visited. I was told that this form assists the government in keeping track of statistics about Katrina relief. I sure hope that it works.
There are DRCs all around the city of New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. Some have been closed as the need for them has diminished. But, the demand remains strong in St. Bernard Parish, as approximately 300-400 persons come through the DRC each day. The most devastating thing that I learned about this Parish was that Katrina caused nearly one million gallons of oil to leak or spill from three separate crude oil refinery operations there. Thousands of citizens returned home to find not only extensive flood and mold damage, but that their remaining property had been coated in oil and other petroleum products. My research at NOLAC has unearthed about thiry class action lawsuits in St. Bernard Parish filed against these oil companies. Some of the classes have already been certified and others await their turn in the overwhelmed and debilitated state and federal courts here.
I could go on at length about all of the experiences, legal and otherwise, that I have had here. But, I will leave you with this: For most Americans, including myself, Katrina is something that you think about when you see another article in the newspaper or an update on the news. For these amazing people of the Gulf Coast, Katrina is all they think about. It's all they talk about. And for good reason. There is not one square block of property that is unaffected, thus, you can't exist here without being constantly reminded of how much Katrina has devastated this part of America...and its residents. Their lives may never be the same again.
My fears about being baffled by the concepts and terms in Louisiana's system of civil law have come to fruition, then quelled. Because we all speak the language of compassion. Even lawyers and law students.
ReNew Orleans. Please."