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Order in the Courts 

Among Hurricane Katrina's few silver linings are the political and governmental reforms triggered by increased citizen activism in the wake of the storm. In response to citizens' demands for more efficiency in government, lawmakers voted to consolidate local levee boards, assessors' offices, the criminal and civil courts, the two sheriffs and the two clerks' offices. These reforms will take time to fully implement, but their impact will be felt for generations. As the city develops its overall recovery strategy, plans for a consolidated local court system have taken a bizarre detour: Mayor Ray Nagin and Recovery Director Ed Blakely want to move a cornerstone of the downtown judicial system to a 'recovery zone" centered at Tulane and Broad " the location of the Criminal District Court building. That is a profoundly bad idea. Don't get us wrong. We fully support the idea of a unified state district court for New Orleans, just as we have supported all of the post-Katrina consolidation efforts. But making the civil courts move to the location of the criminal courts is like trying to make the proverbial tail wag the dog. Beyond its metaphorical improbability, this concept could wreak havoc on the downtown office market. Consider these facts:

More than 3,200 attorneys " 70 percent of the city's lawyers " work downtown. The main reason they locate their offices downtown is proximity to Civil District Court, U.S. District Court, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Louisiana Supreme Court, the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, First City Court and various administrative courts.

Another 3,550 legal support staff, including paralegals, legal secretaries, court runners, bookkeepers, receptionists, administrators, clerks and others, also work in downtown office buildings. All told, more than 6,700 members of the legal community work downtown.

By contrast, only 250 lawyers " including prosecutors, public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys " work near Tulane and Broad.

Moreover, more than 30 percent of downtown's office space is leased to attorneys, according to a recent survey of property managers.

Clearly, the legal community helps anchor the downtown area " not just in terms of office space but also in terms of related and ancillary businesses: large banks and financial service centers, high-end hotels and restaurants, copy centers, coffee shops, parking garages and more. A major sector of the local economy revolves around the legal community's presence downtown. The idea of relocating that hub to Tulane and Broad, where virtually none of those related businesses and infrastructure currently exist, is already sending a shock wave through the city's most viable economic corridor. From all angles, this is a fundamentally bad idea.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, in his capacity as president of the New Orleans Bar Association, penned a respectful letter to Nagin and Blakely on Aug. 30, asking them to the give the local bar an opportunity to weigh in on the proposal, which reportedly is still in the 'draft" stages. 'Rather than jump-start the development of this area," Barbier wrote, 'the proposed relocation more likely will motivate lawyers to relocate to Jefferson Parish or other suburbs, particularly given that many of the law firms' employees presently reside in Jefferson or other parishes. We believe this move is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul and would cause a net economic loss for Orleans Parish and substantially undermine the viability of downtown."

We agree, as do the judges of Civil District Court, who oppose the idea for the same reasons articulated by Barbier.

So what's the solution?

Before Katrina, local judges and lawmakers discussed a plan to demolish the old state Supreme Court Building and build a new court complex there. The area has ample parking and green space, is located downtown, and could easily accommodate a mid- to high-rise judicial complex. Meanwhile, the Criminal Court building should be renovated to house enough courtrooms to continue trying criminal cases there. The judges of the 41st Judicial District Court (the new name of the combined civil and criminal divisions) could share those courtrooms on a rotating basis when they are hearing criminal cases.

There is ample precedent for this idea " all over Louisiana. In the 22nd Judicial District, for example, judges who regularly sit in Covington also routinely hear cases in Franklinton in adjoining Washington Parish. It's no big deal for a single judge and his or her small staff to go to another building (or another parish) to try a case. Thus, there is still good reason to restore the Criminal Courts building and to build a new Municipal and Traffic Court building as well, as part of the proposed Tulane and Broad recovery zone.

But the idea of uprooting or redirecting the entire legal community is just plain dumb. The mayor and Dr. Blakely should heed the signals from the legal community and keep some order in the courts.


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