At Manhattan federal court, working with the lights out

NEW YORK Wed Oct 31, 2012 6:43pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - For the first time since the September 11 attacks, the federal court in Manhattan has put criminal cases on hold, as officials struggle to resume operations in the devastating wake of Hurricane Sandy.

With the courthouse at 500 Pearl St. still without power Wednesday afternoon, Chief Judge Loretta Preska issued an order extending deadlines in pending criminal cases until Monday and deadlines for grand jury action until November 12.

Federal law permits a judge to extend the time for certain criminal filings if the clerk's office is unavailable for filing, or for good cause. The judge on Wednesday also issued a similar order extending deadlines and freezing all new filings in federal civil cases in the district until Monday.

In addition, federal speedy trial law, which normally requires a grand jury indictment within 30 days of an arrest, allows a judge to extend the deadline if he or she finds the "ends of justice" outweigh the defendant's interest.

The September 11, 2001, attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people, left the courthouse closed for a week. At that time, a similar order was issued extending deadlines in criminal cases.

In her unlit offices on the courthouse's 22nd floor, Preska, before issuing the order, spoke to Reuters about the challenges of getting court operations back up and running, as a skeleton crew of courthouse personnel huffed up and down stairs in the darkened building.

"I actually came in thinking I could do some work," said Preska, who was forced to move to a hotel after the hurricane knocked out power to her home in downtown Manhattan.

Preska presides over the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, which consists of 59 judges and four courthouses, including the one in downtown Manhattan.

The Pearl Street location, housing the district court and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has been closed since Monday and will remain so through the end of the week.

EMERGENCY LIGHTING

Edward Friedland, the district executive, said in an interview that newly arrested defendants needing to see a judge would appear before a magistrate at the courthouse in White Plains, which along with the courthouses in Middletown and Poughkeepsie, was operating normally Wednesday.

On Wednesday, auxiliary generators provided emergency lighting and enough electricity to operate three of the more than a dozen elevators at 500 Pearl Street, where roughly 40 judges and magistrates sit.

While most of the courthouse remained dark on Wednesday, certain proceedings had to take place, forcing judges and lawyers to get creative.

In a darkened courtroom on the 14th floor, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon held a telephone hearing on the bail conditions of Paul Ceglia, the entrepreneur charged with engineering a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

Ceglia was in Buffalo, New York, where he had been arrested on charges originating in New York City. With the phone lines in the Manhattan courthouse down, a prosecutor in McMahon's court used a cell phone so Ceglia and court officials in Buffalo could hear the proceedings.

"We need belts and suspenders," McMahon joked, as prosecutors and Ceglia's public defender, David Patton, the chief attorney of the Federal Defenders of New York, huddled around the judge's bench to speak into the phone.

"I'm in a very dark room with a very small light bulb over me," McMahon said. "We have a bunch of lawyers gathered today under adverse circumstances but we need to have this hearing and we need to have it today."

Patton argued to the judge that Ceglia posed no danger and should be granted bail. McMahon set Ceglia's bail at $250,000 and ordered home detention with electronic monitoring within 15 miles of his house near Rochester, New York.

As the hearing ended, McMahon said, "We're having horrendous phone difficulties here in lower Manhattan. It's really quite extraordinary, there hasn't been anything like it, or at least not since 9/11."

Patton declined to comment after the hearing.

On Wednesday afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo also issued an executive order waiving filing deadlines for a wide range of state criminal and civil cases because of the storm.

(Reporting by Basil Katz and Joseph Ax; Editing by Amy Stevens, Noeleen Walder and Todd Eastham)

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