Landrieu, judges still at loggerheads over location of new courthouse

Last month, Judge Michael Bagneris arrived in Baton Rouge for a meeting with state officials about plans for a new Civil District Court building in New Orleans.

To realize his vision for a new courthouse on Duncan Plaza across the street from City Hall, Bagneris was looking to team up with the New Orleans BioDistrict, a political subdivision that has legal authority to raise money by selling bonds, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who could give him use of the land.

So he went to Baton Rouge with state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, BioDistrict chief Jim McNamara and a few other officials to talk the plan over with the governor’s chief of staff.

As it turned out, however, Bagneris had been beaten to the punch.

According to both Murray and McNamara, they arrived in the capital only to learn that one of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top deputies had already spoken with state officials, urging them not to go along with the BioDistrict plan and assuring them that the judges could be nudged into accepting the mayor’s rival proposal for turning the old Charity Hospital building into a combined City Hall and courthouse.

“I was told that the representation was made that the judges were all for being in Charity,” Murray recalled.

“I told the administration that was not the case.”

It’s an episode that drives home two realities: that Landrieu’s blockbuster proposal for remaking a dormant city landmark almost certainly cannot go forward without cooperation from the Civil District Court judges; and on the other hand, that Landrieu could still make plenty of trouble for Bagneris as the latter pushes ahead with plans to build on Duncan Plaza.

The impasse could result in a number of different scenarios playing out.

It could end in a deadlock, leaving New Orleans with an outmoded City Hall building, a moldering Charity Hospital and a cramped, leaky courthouse for the foreseeable future.

Or, the mayor could somehow persuade the judges to join him in supporting the Charity makeover, though that seems increasingly unlikely given that private talks have apparently failed to break the stalemate so far.

Or, finally, the judges could find a way to build on Duncan Plaza without Landrieu’s approval — a result that can’t be ruled out but that would produce an extraordinary spectacle: a rival branch of local government breaking ground on a major construction project in open defiance of the mayor, throwing up a new courthouse within shouting distance of Landrieu’s second-story office in City Hall.

The fight between Landrieu and the judges became apparent almost as soon as the mayor’s proposal for renovating Charity came to light in July, tucked in a five-year capital budget plan. The mayor’s proposal includes a slide titled “Myths about the Charity Hospital building,” aimed not so much at debunking popular misconceptions as at rebutting claims that had apparently already been raised behind the scenes by the judges.

Bagneris and Kern Reese, the two judges most involved in pushing for a new courthouse on Duncan Plaza, argue that Charity simply won’t work as a courthouse, with ceilings that are too low to accommodate a raised bench and columns spaced too closely together for unimpeded vision in large courtrooms.

The mayor’s proposal claims the opposite: that courtrooms could be constructed inside Charity with ceilings 12 to 17 feet high, clear sight lines and “large floor layout possibilities.”

It’s difficult to see how Landrieu can move ahead with his plan without bringing the judges along. For one thing, the Charity building is far too large for City Hall to occupy on its own. In fact, the judges argue it would be too large even with both the city and the court as tenants.

Then there’s funding. Among other sources of cash, the mayor’s plan calls for selling almost $78 million worth of bonds. But at least some of the money needed to pay off that debt — in total, about $11 million a year — would have to come from increases in court fees that the judges have been planning to use for their own building plans.

Landrieu’s strategy so far appears to be to pressure the judges to acquiesce by holding up the Duncan Plaza scheme.

Plan A for Bagneris and Reese is to get the Duncan Plaza courthouse built through the BioDistrict, a state agency created originally to help foster a biosciences industry in New Orleans.

Its territory technically includes Duncan Plaza, and it happens to be starved of cash to continue operating.

So, the thinking goes, the extra fees that Civil District Court is collecting for a new building could be channeled through the BioDistrict, which would sell the bonds to finance construction and hire architects and engineers to do the work, leaving the judges to focus on running the court.

McNamara, the BioDistrict’s executive director, supports that idea, but it’s not clear whether the rest of the district’s board will go along. The mayor’s top deputy, Andy Kopplin, sits on that board and made a case against the judges’ plan during a public meeting last week, arguing that building a courthouse falls well outside of the BioDistrict’s stated mission.

According to McNamara, Kopplin also came close to convincing the Jindal administration that it shouldn’t give the BioDistrict the stretch of land on Duncan Plaza where the courthouse would be situated.

By the time he and Bagneris made it to Baton Rouge last month, McNamara said, “the state had said they weren’t going to transfer the ground to the BioDistrict, that they had sided with the city, that they wanted to see the parties come together.”

Instead of agreeing, however, McNamara and Bagneris brought Murray, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Phillip Wittmann, a partner at the law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, to help make the case against Charity in a meeting with Paul Rainwater, the governor’s chief of staff.

“As a result of that meeting, the state said that they would in fact transfer the ground to us,” McNamara said, although he acknowledged that there is no written agreement yet.

Neither Rainwater nor Kopplin immediately responded to requests for comment.

The mayor’s office could still block the proposal, even if Jindal goes along with it, by persuading a majority of the BioDistrict’s 15 board members not to sign off on taking the land, although that would still leave the judges with other potential avenues.

Bagneris and Reese claim that the court itself could take control of the land and sell bonds for construction. Back in 2010, a law drawn up by Murray set up an entity called the Civil District Court Building Commission “for purposes of the construction and funding of the courthouse.”

The 18 judges housed in the court make up the commission’s board, and they could potentially vote to accept the land from the state and raise money to finance a building.

“We would like to have the BioDistrict involved,” Reese said.

“It would assist us mightily in constructing the courthouse. But we have other possibilities if we need them.”