Courthouse officials settle in to temporary facilityMay 4th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: Top Story
Nearly two weeks into the temporary relocation of St. Bernard Parish courthouse operations from the historic 70-year-old building on St. Bernard Highway to a string of offices in the Village Square strip mall on West Judge Perez Drive, the sounds of hammers and drills still outnumber the sounds of gavels and court proceedings.
But as the days pass, the judges, clerks, attorneys and staff that comprise the parish’s 34th Judicial District Court are steadily settling into their temporary homes.
“We’re a reflection of the people of St. Bernard – we’re survivors,” said Judge Manuel Fernandez, whose office, along with that of Division E, is at 9069 West Judge Perez.
Late last year, inspectors discovered high levels of mold throughout the historic courthouse building, which prompted the temporary move and the total renovation of the courthouse. The FEMA-sponsored overhaul of the building will cost several million dollars and take one to two years.
The move has been challenging at times, but Fernandez admitted that adjusting to their surroundings is a strength of members of the 34th Judicial District Court.
“I guess in a way, [Katrina] really helped, because we experienced something similar to this then,” Fernandez said. “It prepared us for this. We can actually appreciate it.”
After Katrina, Fernandez said, he and other judges would take turns holding court from a desk in the lobby of the courthouse. The first court hearing after Katrina took place Oct. 12.
“We actually married a couple standing in the water,” Fernandez recalled.
Compared to that, this move is much easier, Judge Robert Buckley said.
“After the storm, we were working in much worse conditions than now,” he said.
In the string of offices and courtrooms that comprise the court complex, Buckley’s office is the furthest to the left, at 9029 West Judge Perez Drive, under a tattoo parlor. As in other offices, construction crews continue to put the finishing touches on Buckley’s office.
“We had doors hung in my office yesterday,” Buckley said with a smile.
The 16-year veteran of the bench can walk from his office through a newly cut door to the main courtroom. In the courtroom, the American and state flags are still shrink-wrapped, flag stands have not yet arrived, and construction workers are still hanging doors. Though he has yet to hear a case in the temporary courtroom, Buckley is confident the transition will be smooth.
“It’s a very functional court room,” he said.
Above the main courtroom, located 9037 West Judge Perez, is District Attorney Jack Rowley’s office. Just down from the main courtroom is the Clerk of Court office. Longtime Clerk of Court Lena Torres said it is particularly strange for her not to be in the old courthouse.
“I came with the courthouse,” said Torres, who began working in the clerk’s office in 1940. “I was one of the first to move in.”
Torres said that, for her, the post-Katrina adjustment was a little easier than this one, because she knew exactly where to put things. But walking through the clerk’s office, Torres enjoyed showing off some of the innovations she has already brought to the office’s new setup. She said it is crucial for the Clerk of Court office to be well-organized and functioning smoothly.
“I’m the trunk of the tree and the rest are the branches,” she said.
The clerk’s office, spread over three full floors, is in the process of receiving an elevator, something Torres’ 37 employees will appreciate. Torres said she also looks forward to when all of her files have been transferred from the old courthouse to her temporary office. For now, she said she focuses on one day at a time.
“That’s been my policy since I came here, to keep it on a daily basis,” she said.
Separated from the main grouping of courthouse offices is Judge Perry Nicosia’s office and courtroom, the parish assessor’s office and the adult probation office, at 9115 West Judge Perez. Nicosia’s office is noticeably well put together. He said that is due, for the most part, to the fact that he had not settled in to his main courthouse office before the move.
“That’s why it was so easy for me to move,” Nicosia said.
Still, the newest judge on the bench was still dealing with some last minute construction details as well. On the door leading into his courtroom, a screw stood in the place of a doorknob.
Both Buckley and Fernandez said they look forward to returning to the renewed and improved parish courthouse in one to two years.
“We’re renovating a 70-year-old building that, for the last 30 years, didn’t have hot water,” Fernandez said. “It’s got the wounds and scars for it.”
Fernandez estimated it will take three to six months for engineers to complete redesign plans. Buckley said the experience of moving to Judge Perez Drive has helped courthouse staff learn more about how best to design the courthouse going forward.
“We’re learning some lessons about functioning here that we want to incorporate there,” Buckley said.
Buckley said he hopes the redesigned courtrooms will all have closed-circuit televisions for magistrate hearings. And because judges often have to share courtrooms, he said he hopes the courtrooms may be laid out near one another. He also said he hopes something as simple as wireless Internet throughout the building will be added.
But in the meantime, everyone associated with the courthouse, including postal worker Kevin Thomas, is learning the layout of the temporary courthouse.
“This is crazy, huh?” Thomas said Wednesday as he found his way from office to office.
Thomas is the longtime mail carrier for the St. Bernard Parish Courthouse. Wednesday was his first day to make a special delivery of mail to the temporary facility.