Order in the court
Jim Percy, a Jones Walker attorney, is scheduled to appear in court in just over an hour. As he enters the new 19th Judicial District courthouse on North Boulevard between St. Louis and St. Ferdinand streets, he notes the imposing grandeur of the edifice. He passes through the expedited security and metal detectors in the lobby. The guard on duty recognizes Percy’s face; as a litigator, Percy frequently is in the building.
Percy, whose practice includes commercial litigation, environmental and utilities regulatory work, and governmental relations, steps into an elevator for the quick trip to one of the upper floors. The elevator chimes, the door opens and Percy steps out to a wall of windows with downtown spread out before him, with the State Capitol standing tall. He turns a corner and disappears into the anteroom of his assigned courtroom, calm and prepared for the battle ahead.
When the $112.9 million courthouse is completed—it’s in the final 5% of construction—this scenario will become routine for Percy and other attorneys who visit the 12-story, 300,000-square-foot building in pursuit of justice. The structure is scheduled to be finished in August, and then the move from the governmental building across St. Louis Street will begin. The courthouse is expected to be operational by September or October.
“We’re very excited,” Percy says. “The courthouse wasn’t just designed with attorneys in mind. It will make things easier for everyone: jurors, parties coming to court, judges. It’s moving us into the 21st century.”
The differences between the courthouse and City Hall go far beyond that one is new and the other is old; they pertain to the design and functionality of the building itself. The governmental building is used for a variety of purposes beyond the court system, but the new courthouse was designed for nothing but.
That means the new structure has a host of advantages, including more accessible areas for jury selection, traffic court, an empty floor for future expansion, six floors with four courtrooms apiece, an unassigned municipal courtroom, a law library and a conference room.
Security has been addressed in several ways. Currently, a prisoner transported to the governmental building for a trial is taken to his or her courtroom by a service elevator that also is open to the public. Judges ride the public elevators from the main lobby with everyone else passing through on business, and there is no security until a person reaches the hallways on the upper floors.
The new courthouse has three pathways: one each for the public, judges and prisoners, with no intersections until all come face-to-face in the courtroom. Unlike City Hall, there is one public entrance and exit from the building, and everyone who enters must pass through lobby security before heading to his or her destination.
Each judge’s office suite includes an electronic lock and cameras to restrict access, as well as private elevators to and from a restricted parking garage under the facility. Jurors also have private conference rooms connected to the courtroom, which increases security during deliberations and does not require them to move to another location.
For Judge Janice Clark, who serves as head of the courthouse building commission, the new facility is the result of a decade’s worth of planning, fund-raising and studying courthouses around the country. Security was the No. 1 concern, but issues such as acoustical problems, inadequate space for large trials and a buildup of cases also were addressed.
The goal, she says, is to be accessible to the public while at the same time keeping safe those people who practice and carry out the law, including judges, attorneys and jurors.
“I believe the judges of the 19th District are pleased beyond measure,” Clark says. “We’ve seen this go from being a brainchild to inception and almost to fruition.”
While the current courtrooms open directly onto the central hallway, each courtroom in the new courthouse has an anteroom before its entrance, which will cut down on the noise from people coming and going. The three-pathway plan also improves the flow of people through the building, which has been a challenge in City Hall, Percy says.
“The usage of that building has increased tremendously over time,” he says. “Just having more space will be a benefit to everyone that uses [the new courthouse] because there will be a freer flow with increased security.”
One frequent complaint was the limit on technology that could be used during trials in the governmental building. That has been rectified in the new courthouse, which has been outfitted with WiFi and other capabilities that allow a judge to take control of exhibits and microphones in the courtroom.
Louisiana does not allow video recording and broadcasting from court, but, architect Raymond “Skipper” Post says, the new courthouse has been wired in the event that the ruling is one day overturned.
“This [courthouse] is about as cutting edge as it gets,” he says. “Obviously, you can’t order what might exist five years in the future, but there is room for upgrades as technology develops.”
Technology upgrades have delayed the completion of the new courthouse, Post says. The hardware for the courtrooms was ordered this year so as to be up-to-date; if the equipment had been ordered three years ago with the rest of the project, he says, it would have been obsolete by the time the building was finished.
But some difficulties have occurred on the construction side, because of working around mostly completed portions of the building and coordinating installation to prevent theft.
“The last 5% of construction is always the hardest,” says Matt Tanory, senior project manager for Walton Construction. “There are thousands of little details to finish up. So far, so good.”
For Post, the courthouse represents something more than a modern building or better security for the 19th Judicial District Court. Those things are definitely important, but the main aspect of the building that he wants all who enter to perceive—whether they are judge or juror, plaintiff or defendant, attorney or a member of the public—is the weight of the decisions that are made within its walls.
“I want people to see the dignity and the importance of what goes on in this building,” he says. “I want them to feel a sense of justice and that justice was properly dispensed.”