In the next 30 days, New Orleans could see some historic moves that will re-shape, and even reform, city government and the local judiciary. There are two key dates to watch:
On May 6, Mayor Ray Nagin and members of the City Council will mark the halfway point in their current four-year terms. Around this time, the mayor's blue ribbon task force will make its case for a new municipal complex. The plan includes a new City Hall on the site of the present facility and a new Civil District Court (CDC) building on the site of the soon-to-be vacated Louisiana Supreme Court.
On May 17, the Supreme Court and the state Fourth Court of Appeal will open at the renovated Royal Street Courthouse, 400 Royal St. (the old state Wildlife & Fisheries building). Afterwards, the city hopes to raze the present Supreme Court building, located across Duncan Plaza from City Hall. Demolition would clear the way for construction of a new Civil District Court (CDC) building and the possible sale of the present CDC building -- which sits on prime real estate at the corner of Loyola Avenue and Poydras Street.
Our story last week on the aging CDC shows that New Orleans desperately needs separate modern facilities for civil and juvenile courts ("Full-Court Press," April 13). Located next to City Hall, CDC suffers from a lack of space, frequent water damage, poor design, and chronic plumbing and electrical problems. Calvin Johnson, chief judge of Criminal District Court, correctly calls CDC a "dump."
Making no improvements is not an option. New Orleans needs a new Civil District Court building and a separate Juvenile Court facility. Yet questions emerge about leadership and funding of new construction. The city is effectively the "landlord" for the courts. State law requires that the city provide "suitable courtrooms and offices" for local courts, the criminal and civil sheriffs, the recorder of mortgages and register of conveyances, and court clerks and constables. Other than the criminal sheriff, the traffic and municipal courts, all local courts and parochial offices not in Algiers are headquartered at CDC. State law also gives courts and parochial offices authority to assist the city with repairs, renovation and construction costs.
Currently, Nagin and the 23 judges at CDC appear to be pursuing separate tracks for the needed courthouse improvements. The mayor's plan is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Private funding is expected to play a large role in financing that plan, says architect Arthur Q. Davis, chair of the mayor's blue-ribbon task force.
The judges at CDC envision a state-of-the-art building, up to 10 stories high, with revenue-producing retail space. Estimated cost: $75 million. State law requires the self-funded Civil Court pay the debt service of a new Juvenile Court. Under the CDC plan, Juvenile Court would be housed at a newly renovated city annex building at 2400 Canal St. Cost: $15 million.
As of December 2002, CDC had $3 million socked away for new courthouse construction. To raise more construction money, the judges are asking lawmakers to pass House Bill 66, which would allow the court to increase fees for filing lawsuits. Such fees currently are lower in New Orleans than in most parishes. Moreover, taxes would NOT increase under the judges' plan. Similar legislation failed last year when state Sen. Paulette Irons, D-New Orleans, criticized the judges' previous $140 million plan. The judges subsequently hired an independent consultant, did more research, and returned with ideas that trimmed their request by $50 million.
Irons and Sen. Lambert Boissiere, D-New Orleans, now say they want to hear how the judges' plan folds into the mayor's vision. So do we. After all, CDC needs the bonding authority of the city to move its plans forward, and the mayor has a responsibility to work with local judges to improve our system of justice. Irons wants hard numbers on how much the judges intend to raise filing fees. At the same time, the rising cost of steel, which has raised the cost of expanding the Morial Convention Center, may affect the judges' cost estimates.
These questions can and should be addressed, and quickly. That said, we wholeheartedly support the judges' call for new courthouses. We also believe citizens will support a bond issue for construction when costs are justified -- and taxes are not increased. We therefore urge lawmakers to pass House Bill 66. At the same time, we urge Nagin to work with the judges and parochial officials to find ways to streamline court services, consolidate functions, and save space. Such discussions may include consolidating offices, but such talk should not stand in the way of building the new courthouse. The mayor and the judges have an opportunity to lead a campaign for a new, modern courthouse, new juvenile courts, and a new municipal complex. These buildings will be the center of civic life in New Orleans. Each should be a shining jewel in our city's landscape -- not a dump.