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EJF Summer Fellowship narrative
By Texys Morris
On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaks ravished the beautiful city of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast. When our nation’s largest natural disaster hit our shores, I was thousands of miles away in the tiny landlocked country of Lesotho, Africa. The BBC broke the news of Katrina to the world and me as I sat in my little hut, where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here I was in a nation with the third highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world with destitute poverty all around me. Yet images of the pain and suffering back home reminded me of the cruel irony in a local child’s statement- “I want to go to America, because everyone is so rich and so happy”. The national tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina taught the world and us, as Americans, about the reality of poverty in America.
With over a year left in my Peace Corps service, I was unable to participate in the immediate rebuilding efforts. It would be another four years before I would have the opportunity to try to help the City of New Orleans and her people to rebuild in some small way. Houses and infrastructure were the obvious points of destruction after the hurricane but the legal system, particularly for those accused of crimes, was broken and desperately needed work.
This past summer as the recipient of an Equal Justice Foundation fellowship, I had the opportunity to work for eight weeks with the Orleans Public Defenders office. OPD is based in New Orleans but serves the entire parish, representing thousands of individuals accused of criminal offenses. This office existed pre-Katrina but the storm exposed incredible need for increased representation and advocacy for some of the nation’s poorest individuals. New Orleans has one of the highest crime rates in the country, local jails are overcrowded (often with no air conditioning in the midst of the sweltering Louisiana heat), and corruption reigns throughout the local government and police force. The extreme poverty that plagued the city pre-Katrina has only increased after Katrina, all of which invariably affects crime rates as the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” further widens.
Given the overwhelming need for representation, OPD attorneys each handle an average of 150-200 cases at any given time. The work of law clerks then is critical in helping indigent individuals receive their guaranteed constitutional rights of representation. As a law clerk I participated in all aspects of criminal litigation. I met with clients during their first court appearances and assisted with their bond hearings. I visited clients in jail and made contacts with their families to facilitate their cases. I performed legal research and drafted all sorts of legal documents including a motion for new trial and several motions to quash indictments. I also helped challenge the constitutionality of various municipal ordinances that enabled police to make arbitrary arrests of individuals and which stifled free speech. Also during the course of the summer I had the opportunity to assist with two felony cases which resulted in positive dispositions for our clients.
As the daughter of a public defender, I have always thought that I would someday want to pursue indigent defense. My experience in New Orleans further affirmed that desire. All individuals have constitutional rights in our judicial system and yet it is the poor who are the most at risk of having those rights trampled on. Katrina destroyed the city of New Orleans but it did not destroy its spirits. In its aftermath, Katrina helped create a renewed passion for indigent defense and for helping the most vulnerable in society gain access through the legal system. I was honored to have been a part of OPD and inspired by the work of these zealous advocates. I am truly appreciative of the EJF fellowship program which enabled me to take part in helping to rebuild New Orleans through improving legal representation to those most affected by the storm.