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Full-Court Press 

The judges of Civil District Court are pleading their case for a new courthouse, but some legislators want to hear from the mayor first.

It doesn't take a lawyer to make a good argument for a new courthouse to replace the aging New Orleans Civil District Court (CDC). Evidence of the need is everywhere inside the aging building at 432 Loyola Ave., at the corner of Poydras street: cramped quarters, chronic wiring and plumbing problems, and a general dinginess. Since it was built in 1959, CDC has undergone only one major renovation -- to add a jury room 20 years ago.

"I don't know how much longer this building is going to be able to stand," says Carolyn Gill-Jefferson, chief judge of Civil District Court. "We are Band-Aiding everything now."

"I was over there the other day," Calvin Johnson, chief judge of Criminal District Court, says of CDC. "It looks like it ought to be somebody's dump."

Attorney Phil Wittmann, the president of the New Orleans Bar Association and a litigator in the famous civil trial of televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Marvin Gorman at CDC in 1990, says a new courthouse is "desperately" needed. " That courthouse was built at a time when people didn't ask for jury trials," says Wittmann, a partner in the law firm of Stone, Pigman, Walther and Wittmann. "It's just not anywhere near adequate."

By contrast, modern courthouses have recently been built in parishes like St. Tammany, St. Bernard and East Baton Rouge. "It can only be beneficial to the residents of Orleans Parish to have a new courthouse," Wittmann argues. "Our legislative groups have got to recognize that. The city can build a $300 million addition to the Convention Center, we surely ought to be able to build a decent courthouse."

There is plenty of agreement on the need for a new facility. But questions emerge over how to pay for a new courthouse and who should take the lead in the fundraising campaign -- Mayor Ray Nagin, the judiciary, or both?

Presently, the 17 judges of Civil District Court -- and lawyers' organizations such as the New Orleans Bar Association -- are trying to make the case in the Legislature that Juvenile Court and Civil Court need separate homes of their own. But some legislators are skeptical. At least two influential New Orleans senators want to know how the judges' proposal -- which has already been reduced from $140 million to $90 million since last year -- folds into Mayor Ray Nagin's vision for a new municipal complex.

The city is the landlord for the courts and parochial offices at CDC. And while $1.5 million in savings from filing fees make Civil Court the wealthiest of a constellation of local courthouses, CDC will need the bonding authority of the city to make any new facilities a reality, officials say.

Nagin was unavailable for comment for this story. However, the mayor's blue-ribbon panel on the proposed municipal complex is expected to make its recommendations public next month. Headed by architect Arthur Q. Davis, who designed City Hall, the panel has designs on the development of a new municipal complex on the present downtown site -- involving City Hall, CDC, the state office building and the soon-to-be vacated Supreme Court building across Duncan Plaza from City Hall. The development is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Money and square footage will be key concerns as planners face the rising cost of steel for construction. In addition, "reformers" can be expected to revive calls for cost-efficient consolidation of multiple government agencies, before a new courthouse is built.

Meanwhile, the more than 500 employees crammed into CDC are bracing for April showers and, possibly, May floods.

INT HE BASEMENT OF CDC, WHERE THE CITY'S MOST VITAL records are stored, mops, buckets and water-tight containers are at the ready. Employees are prepared in case of a heavy rain, a broken pipe or leaky toilet from the upper floors, officials say.

"We are kind of geared toward disaster planning," says Louis "Buddy" Blaum, deputy custodian for Notarial Archives. A parochial agency, Notarial Archives holds some 40 million legal documents inked in New Orleans over three centuries, including wills, marriage and building contracts, and powers of attorney.

Most of the city's antiquities -- acts and legal proceedings from the French, Spanish and early American periods -- are stored in an office building across the street, rented by taxpayers for about $10,000 a month.

However, other valuable documents, such as property records, judgments and business records, are divided among Notarial Archives and separate basement offices of the Orleans Parish Registrar of Conveyances and the parish Recorder of Mortgages -- where they are subject to water damage. (Back-up microfilm records are stored at the state archives in Baton Rouge.)

Clerks can tell horror stories of wading through last June's rainwater to salvage critical records. Sheets of plastic are ready to be pulled over bookshelves in the event of an unexpected deluge.

"It never made sense to me why they put the most important documents in the city under water," says Gaspar Schiro, the elected parish registrar of conveyances.

A lack of space is another problem. While there is no shortage of bookshelves, employees of the three basement offices share desks and cubicles, or inhabit warrens between bookcases and even inside vaults. In the office of Recorder of Mortgages Desiree Charbonnet, the basement loft is used for both storage and research. Because visitors have hit their heads on the low-hanging pipes, the recorder has posted a warning sign not likely found in any other book repository: "Researchers must wear hard hats while in the loft." Blue hard hats rests atop a thick ledger.

THERE IS MORE FOOT TRAFFIC, AND ADDITIONAL PROBLEMS, on the upper floors of the courthouse. While the city's records are below sea level, the courthouse clerks' offices -- the most trafficked area of CDC -- are located on the fourth floor. (In other courthouses, the clerks' offices are on the first floor.)

The constant use of elevators results in frequent breakdowns and repair bills.

Elsewhere, there are no jury deliberation rooms for the 17 courts at CDC, including three courtrooms for First City Court. Judges must find unused courtrooms for juries to reach their confidential decisions.

Private conversations between lawyers and clients must be held in the hallways. The talk often gets heated, especially in the foyers of the domestic courts, says court public information director Walt Pierce. Not infrequently, the outside noise disturbs courtroom proceedings.

Moreover, CDC's new domestic violence coordinator must counsel victims on a wooden bench in the court hallway. She shares an office with two clerks and there is no privacy.

There also is insufficient space to handle the large numbers of jurors needed for jury selection in major cases, such as class-action lawsuits.

Gill-Jefferson says both the Louisiana Superdome and the federal courthouse recently declined CDC's request for space for a major tobacco case. "We don't have courtrooms large enough to attend to that kind of case, without disrupting some other court," she says.

The tobacco trial had to be conducted in the courtroom of Civil Court Judge Yada Magee because it was the only courtroom that was in full compliance with the federal American Disabilities Act, Pierce says. The same trial had to be postponed because water leaked into the judge's courtroom from an upper floor, damaging ceiling tiles and carpet.

In addition, there are not enough phone lines and electrical outlets to meet lawyers' demand for laptop computers. Electrical circuits frequently shut down, causing computers to crash. The widespread use of electric space heaters to offset chilly office temperatures on the upper floors may be a culprit. "The facility is just not user friendly; the wiring to create state-of-art computer technology does not exist," says Rachel Pearcey, executive director of the Pro Bono Project, a legal aid service for the poor.

Temperature is another source of chronic complaints. "We froze this winter," Gill-Jefferson says. Down in the basement, however, there is the opposite problem. "We generally don't have much air-conditioning," says Blaum of Notarial Archives.

During a tour of the basement, a vent in the Notarial Archives shuddered. A blast of cool air swept over two clerks behind a counter. They cheered.

HOUSED IN THE SAME BUILDING, JUVENILE COURT has many of the same problems as Civil Court, along with other issues. "The juvenile court facilities are just horrendous," says Wittmann of the Bar Association, which is championing a judge-backed plan to place Juvenile Court in the old city annex building at 2400 Canal St. -- after millions of dollars of renovations.

C. Hearn Taylor, chief judge of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, says the court needs more space and modern technology to do a better job.

Security is a concern: Half of the court's docket involves youths who are victims or offenders in criminal cases. "Candidly, we need to be in a facility that is more family- and children-friendly," Taylor says of the court's gritty, cramped environs.

There is little space for confidential attorney-client meetings. "We have a cubicle that's available on a first-come, first service basis," Taylor says.

Centralization of support services also would help. Instead, a major family service program is located some 10 blocks away from the present courthouse. Gill-Jefferson says a national consultant hired by CDC has recommended a separate, stand-alone facility for Juvenile Court "because of confidentiality concerns, and the unique delinquency elements which require rehabilitation and security."

The consultant for the National Center for State Courts concluded that the building at 2400 Canal St. would be "the perfect site" for Juvenile Court, Gill-Jefferson says. Taylor concurs: "The city annex building would be a great place -- done right."

The trick to improving both the civil and juvenile courts, observers agree, is financing.

MAYOR MARC MORIAL GOT THE BALL ROLLING near the end of his second term, officials say. Architects were hired. Blueprints were drawn. And plans called for a courthouse to be built on Poydras Street, on the site of the City Hall parking garage.

Plans changed when Nagin took office in May 2002. Nagin announced a bold initiative to build a new municipal complex for city government. He set up a task force, headed by architect Arthur Davis, to look for ways to make it happen.

Also last year, state Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, authored successful legislation that cleared the way for a cooperative endeavor agreement between the state and city. Act 1113 will allow the city to raze the old Louisiana Supreme Court building, located across Duncan Plaza from City Hall, for a new Civil District Courthouse. The state will continue to own the property on which the new civil court will be built. In exchange, the city will provide 30,000 square feet of permanent office space for the state Office of Public Health and other offices, located in the state office building at 325 Loyola Ave. OPH currently pays for more than 130,000 square feet at the state office building.

At least one part of the plan should unfold next month. That's when the Supreme Court is scheduled to move into its new Royal Street courthouse in the French Quarter.

This week, the Arthur Davis committee will convene to discuss the proposed municipal complex. The mayor's 11-person committee (which includes Civil Court Judge Michael Bagneris) is expected to review recommendations for its final report to be released in May. "We will have a package with everything we are proposing sometime in May," Davis says. Most of the funding for the government complex, which is all located on prime real estate, will come from private sources. "Most of the funds, we expect will be private funds," Davis says. "I think financing is probably the most intriguing part of the project."

Davis says the panel's proposal will not include financing for a new juvenile court. Civil Court will pay the debt service on the bonds for the renovation of Juvenile Court, a requirement of a law authored several years ago by state Sen. Paulette Irons, D-New Orleans. "We agreed to do that before that (legislation) was even passed," Gill-Jefferson says, speaking on behalf of the civil court.

GILL-JEFFERSN SAYS PLANS FOR THE NEW CIVIL COURT calls for a building about seven to 10 stories high, with 291,000 square feet. A private developer will build a 750-car parking garage in a separate building. The plan also calls for first floor, revenue-producing retail space at the new courthouse conducive to court operations, including banks, restaurants and a copying center. State archives and documents and the clerks' offices also will be on the first floor -- not in the basement.

"The cost estimate for us to do a new building for [Civil Court] -- is about $75 million," Gill-Jefferson says. Renovations for the new Juvenile Court at 2400 Canal St. will cost an extra $15 million, she says. The estimates are based on figures from Billes/Manning Architects and a study by the National Center for State Courts, private consultants hired by the Civil Court.

An increase in Civil Court filing fees is expected to fund most of the project costs. However, estimates of fee increases for filing lawsuits and other fees to pay for the construction are not available. "We don't have a number yet," Gill-Jefferson says.

Says Wittmann of the Bar Association: "You are going to have to be able to raise filing fees in order to finance this. There just isn't enough money otherwise. Taxes are out of the question." Currently, Orleans Parish ranks among the lowest of the 64 parishes in court filing fees, civil court officials say.

But higher filing fees will not be the only source of revenue for building the new court, Gill-Jefferson says. The court also hopes to derive revenue from its parking garage, which will be available for events at the nearby Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Arena. The court also expects to fund construction from rent for first-floor retail space for the copying center and other commercial operations.

The judge rejects suggestions that the anticipated revenue is speculative. "I tell you what, wouldn't Kinko's love to have access to lawyers?" Gill-Jefferson says. "We get 20,000 new cases coming into this courthouse a year. It is pretty much a captive audience. -- It is not speculative."

COURTHOUSE PROPONENTS FACE TOUGH questioning about financing of the courthouse in the Louisiana Senate. Last year, Wittmann and Gill-Jefferson testified before a legislative committee in an attempt to repeal a law passed several years ago that prohibited the raising of court filing fees to finance court house construction.

Reform House Bill 1773 would have cleared the way for Civil Court to use its fee-based Judicial Expense Fund to help build a new "Civil Justice Center" to house all of the courts, except Juvenile. It passed the House and went to the floor of the Senate. On the last day of the session in 2003, Irons got the bill pulled from the Senate floor and it died in committee.

This year, proponents will try again with similar legislation, HB66, authored by Rep. Ed Murray.

Irons, who says she favors a new courthouse, says several problems derailed the judges' proposal last year, including responsibility and cost.

"It's the City of New Orleans' responsibility to house the courtrooms," Irons says. "And we had no direction from the mayor as to whether or not he was for this (bill)."

In addition, Irons says, the judges could not answer key funding questions about the project. "They first came up with an estimate of $140 million for two courthouses, including $22 million for Juvenile Court," Irons says. "My question was, how much will it cost to pay off the bonds? The state is not going to pay for it. The burden is going to fall on the litigants. No one could tell me how much the fees will be increased."

While the city's poorest citizens are exempt from filing fees, the higher costs would make the courts less accessible to the general population, Irons says. Presently, it costs $300 to file suit in Orleans Parish. Currently, the judges are asking for $90 million -- a sharp drop from their previous request. "What if we had approved the $140 million last year?" asks Irons, who says she has aspirations to be a civil judge herself.

Irons says she opposed the judges' proposal last year because she didn't believe "they understand the impact of who is going to eventually pay for this building. They want what they want. Sure you deserve it, but who is going to pay for it? At the end of the day, it will prohibit most people from going to court to get redress and I am not in that business."

The bottom line, Irons says, is that the judges "absolutely had not done their homework."

"We dispute that," responds Gill-Jefferson, who denies Irons' allegation of prohibitive fee increases. "All of the judges of this court are elected by the citizens of New Orleans," she says. "And I don't think any of my colleagues would risk making access to justice by a fee happen. We are cognizant of what this economy is in the city of New Orleans and we are all cognizant of why we are sitting in these chairs. We are not about to impose a fee that would deny access to justice to any litigant, notwithstanding the fact that there is a need for a building."

Says Pearcey of the Pro Bono Project: "My concern is how [a fee increase] is going to affect access and indigents; I don't think it should impact them. If anything, services to the indigent will be greatly improved by a new building. So I am for it."

GILL-JEFFERSON ACKNOWLEDGES THE PROPOSED costs of the new courthouse have dropped by nearly $50 million since last year. After the courthouse bill failed last year, the judges scaled back their plans after site visits to a modern courthouse in Orlando, Fla., and consultations with advisers and architects.

For example, a national trend is growing toward construction of "collegial courtrooms" and away from individual courtrooms called for in the old plans. "Instead of 17 (CDC) judges having individual courtrooms, that has been reduced to 11 courtrooms, three of which will be assigned specifically to domestic courts," Gill-Jefferson says. "There is never a day when all 11 of us will be having a trial at the same time."

In addition, judges will have smaller, less expensive "Œadjudication rooms' for non-trial matters," she says. "It will be a smaller structure and because of the research the CDC has done, less expensive. We are not just out here bumbling around. We are getting the best information that is available to us to be able to build a courthouse that will last into the future."

Sen. Lambert Boissiere, D-New Orleans, says the state is concerned that if the New Orleans judges get the authority to raise fees, someone will sue the state for allowing them to do it. To allay state concerns of legal responsibility, he says, the city should coordinate the construction effort -- not the judges. "They really should go back to the city and have the city propose the structure," says Boissiere, adding that he's "doubtful" that, even if HB 66 passes out of the House this year, it will make it out of Senate committee.

Rep. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, author of HB 66, says the courthouse proposal faces two major hurdles -- the Supreme Court and the Legislature. Last year, the Legislature passed a law requiring that any fee increase for the courts must be approved by the Judicial Council of the Supreme Court. If the Judicial Council approves the judges' fee hike, the proposal would go to the Legislature for approval.

Much of the fee levels will be driven by the projected cost of the building, Murray says. The New Orleans Bar Association has passed a resolution acknowledging that its clients will bear the cost of higher fees.

"The biggest problem is getting the bill passed," Murray says. "Part of the holdup is getting some certainty to what the mayor wants (in his plan for a municipal complex)."

Meanwhile, the judges and other proponents need to find help for HB66 in the Senate. "I can't handle it on the other side," Murray says.

THE FUTURE OF THE COURTHOUSE APPEARS largely to rest in the hands of the mayor. The judges' Judicial Expense Fund does not have the authority to issue bonds; the city does have that authority, Gill-Jefferson says.

Proponents say they have met with Nagin and he supports the concept of a new civil court building, but has not weighed in on HB66 specifically. For the time being, the judges and groups such as the local bar association are on their own.

"We don't want to be in the business of building a building, but somebody has to take the lead or otherwise it's not going to get done," Gill-Jefferson says.

Murray says the judges can act as "co-equals with the mayor" on a campaign for public approval of the new courthouse. Observers are waiting to see if Nagin applies his governmental reform notions to the new courthouse in a quest to save money on construction and make government more efficient. For example, a 1993 study for the private Bureau of Governmental Research -- led by former Mayor and state appellate court Judge Moon Landrieu -- recommended that the office of Notarial Archives, Registrar of Conveyances and Recorder of Mortgages be abolished. The clerk of Civil District Court would assume their duties, under the BGR plan. Criminal Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson says Nagin needs to start an educational campaign to educate the citizens about the problems facing all of the courts in the parish. Judge Taylor, of Juvenile Court, agrees. "The mayor should be the kind guiding hand, and make sure all the needs of all the courts are met," Taylor says. "We are not going to build another facility for another 50 years. We might as well build it right."

click to enlarge In the basement of Civil District Court, where the city's - most vital records are stored, mops and buckets are at - the ready in case of rain or a water leak. - CIVIL DISTRICT COURT
  • Civil District Court
  • In the basement of Civil District Court, where the city's most vital records are stored, mops and buckets are at the ready in case of rain or a water leak.
click to enlarge Because visitors have hit their heads on the low-hanging - pipes, the recorder of mortgages has posted a warning - sign not likely found in other book repositories. - CIVIL DISTRICT COURT
  • Civil District Court
  • Because visitors have hit their heads on the low-hanging pipes, the recorder of mortgages has posted a warning sign not likely found in other book repositories.


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