Judges, lawyers decry 'deplorable' condition of Orleans Parish courthouse

Alejandro de los Rios May 27, 2010, 5:53am

Scaffolding supports a corner of the northwest wing of the Orleans Parish Civil District Courthouse. The Courthouse was built in the 1950s and the northwest wing was added in 1984.

To get a sense of the utter disrepair at Orleans Parish Civil District Courthouse building, one need only check out the northwest wing of the building that was added on in 1984.

From the outside, you'd see a cracked support beam and scaffolding that supports the side of the building. And that's just in the newest wing of the courthouse.

Orleans Parish Judge Kern Reese during an interview pointed to the ceiling in his chambers where a large section had to be taken out because of a leaking drainpipe. The section has been replaced with plywood that contrasts with the off-white plaster ceiling.

"This building leaves a lot to be desired," he said. "I think when they were building it they kind of ran out of money."

Stalled elevators, broken air conditioning units, graffiti in the bathrooms and exposed wires in the stairwell are just a few of the problems some judges have pointed to over the years in their push for a new building.

Judge Michael Bagneris called the state of the building "deplorable" and that simply renovating the building is "out of the question" because the cost would exceed building a new one from scratch.

"We obviously made [the Ray Nagin] administration aware of the problems we have here," he said. "The only thing the administration would do is patchwork."

Under Louisiana state law, the city of New Orleans is responsible for building and maintaining its civil district courthouse. Built in the 1950s as part of a greater Civic Center project, the courthouse (attached to City Hall) has been renovated just once in 1984 when the northwest wing was built. The building is also home the First City Court of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court.

Before being sworn into office earlier this month, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's transition team looked at numbers from the first quarter of 2010 and found that the City of New Orleans faces a potential $25-$30 million budget deficit. To save money, City Hall instituted a four-day workweek under Nagin (Landrieu announced the City will return to a regular schedule June 1).

Bagneris said the city, as building owner, is obligated to maintain the premises. He also said that judges have a responsibility to report any apparent code or safety violations. He said the city usually responds depending on the severity of the complaint.

Numerous calls and messages left at the Landrieu's office and City Hall were not returned for comment. The city's property management office is in charge of maintaining city property but questions about the building were referred to the capital projects office, which also did not return numerous requests for comment. A message left with the mayor's communications office also was not returned.

The biggest problem about the Orleans Civil courthouse is that deficiencies are affecting day-to-day operations. Absent from the present design, for example, is a jury deliberation room.

Orleans Civil District Court Public Information Officer Walt Pierce said that juries usually have to find empty courtrooms to deliberate on cases. The courthouse also lacks counsel rooms for lawyers and their clients to talk, leaving them to converse in hallways or staircases if they want privacy.

"It's embarrassing, particularly when you have out-of-state counsel come in," Bagneris said.

Faulty elevators, which break down on a weekly basis, are also a major concern because most of the traffic in the courthouse goes to the clerk's office on the fourth floor (two of the three elevators were non-functioning the day Bagneris was interviewed for this article). There's also the air conditioning unit that has failed repeatedly and is so antiquated that, when it broke down recently, a special part had to be custom-made to get it running again.

"You try sitting in this building in the peak of summer and try to get work done without getting a heat burn," Bagneris said.

New Orleans attorney Morris Bart, who has been litigating cases at Orleans Civil District Court since 1984, called the building "functional but weary" and said that, though it's in a prime location just walking distance from many law firms, the building "could use a facelift."

New Orleans attorney Greg Di Leo, who's practiced law in New Orleans for 30 years, was harsher in his criticism.

"It's poor, in a word," he said. "We need a new courthouse."

For attorneys, the dire state of the building can cause extra expenses when it comes to litigation. DiLeo noted that the federal courthouse in New Orleans, where he also tries cases, has advanced audiovisual technology, which provides plaintiffs, defendants, judges and jurors a monitor to display evidence.

At Orleans Parish, courtrooms have only a small television equipped with VHS. DiLeo said that if counsel wishes a more modern form of displaying evidence, they have to rent A/V equipment at their client's expense.

Some conditions at the building are comical.

For example, the non-functioning gate in the carriageway that leads from the street to the parking lot is stained with bird droppings despite being under a roof. That's because pigeons have roosted in spaces left when the lights were replaced but the old light fixture holes weren't filled in. Not too far from that is a sign for the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which has long since moved to the Louisiana Supreme Court Building in the French Quarter.

Despite all the problems with the courthouse building, there is nothing the judges, clerks and attorneys that work there can do but wait.

Bagneris acknowledges that Landrieu's administration, which took office May 3, is still "getting their legs under them" and said that the judges have yet to begin talks with the current administration about the state of the courthouse.

But with Baton Rouge's 19th Judicial District getting ready to open a brand-new 360,000-square-foot courthouse in August — complete with digital docket displays, a cafeteria/kitchen, and A/V systems similar to those found in federal courtrooms —Bagneris is still hopeful the current city administration will be receptive to building a new courthouse.

"You always have to be optimistic to be able to achieve your goals," Bagneris said. "If you weren't, you wouldn't have any motivation to strive towards them."

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