New civil district courthouse could be cure for 'sick' Orleans Parish building

Tia Benton Jan. 2, 2013, 8:47pm

NEW ORLEANS – Low-tech doesn't begin to describe conditions at the Orleans Parish Civil District Courthouse.

While many courts across the country in recent years have become smarter with the introduction of advanced technology, the one here is "sick" and "deficient."

Lacking basic amenities such as properly functioning HVAC and elevators, jury deliberation rooms, attorney-client consultation rooms, it's no wonder that Orleans Parish civil district court judges are excited about construction of a new $120 million courthouse expected to be completed in 2016.

Judge Michael G. Bagneris, chairman of the New Courthouse Building Committee, described current conditions at the courthouse as "deplorable."

“I can’t think of a building in more deplorable condition than this is," Bagneris said. "It’s a crapshoot as to whether any of the elevators are working on a day-to-day basis. The chambers are like a sauna in the summer and you can hang meat in the winter."

Judges Robin M. Giarrusso and Kern A. Reese echoed Bagneris’s description.

Giarrusso said the courthouse may even be in violation of federal law.

“We don’t know if we are in complete compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act," Giarrusso said.

"Not all courtrooms have a handicap ramp. We have to be forewarned of witnesses with disabilities so you can secure the one courtroom that does have a ramp."

Reese added by saying,“This building is woefully deficient. It is a sick building. As courthouses go, it is really inefficient and really deficient in terms of the types of amenities you need that constitute a functioning courthouse.”

The current courthouse lacks technology and is in dire need of jury deliberation space and attorney-client conference rooms, the three judges said.

Giarrusso also shared that she has given up her own office so that attorneys and clients could have a private place to talk in instances where settlement offers have been made.

“The privacy and confidentiality at the hallmark of our legal system is breached because they don’t have a meeting place,” she said.

Bagneris asserts that the Orleans Parish courthouse is the most lacking one in the nation in terms of basic amenities.

He said he is confident that the court will be able to meet the financial challenge presented in raising funds for the new courthouse.

“The main reason why we will be able to meet this challenge, I believe, is two-fold," he said. "One–this need has been present for a significant period of time; for far too long a period of time. Two–all members of the bar and judiciary are very much aware of what kind of condition this building is in. No one questions the need for a new courthouse and because of that the New Orleans Bar and real estate community is doing more than their part in assuring a new courthouse will be built.”

According to Bagneris and Reese, the biggest challenge in the past has not been the financing, but the politics.

“The judiciary is often times crucified on the cross of political expediency and that’s what we have to be careful of," Bagneris said. "We are going to monitor the situation and attempt to assure that the integrity of the court is maintained and we don’t let any political influence taint the process."

Bagneris and Reese say that personal agendas from other quadrants of government have stunted the progression of building a new courthouse, including the agenda of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

The New Courthouse building committee in conjunction with the project consultant is at the point of completing the needs assessment for the new courthouse. The next phase will be the implementation of community ideas from the local bar association, real estate community and citizens.

Bagneris, as committee chairman, said he wants to ensure that the attorney needs and citizen needs are all implemented in the new building.

The community can stay updated on the process of the building of the New Orleans Parish Civil District Court courthouse beginning this month via a building commission website that will be launched.

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