A broken valve that leaked water onto a main breaker panel at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse over the weekend had a ripple effect Monday that shut down the courthouse and made it impossible to conduct most other legal business in Baton Rouge.
In addition to the state courthouse and East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court, the malfunction affected Clerk of Court operations inside the courthouse and at the clerk's offices at City Hall across the street and at a satellite location on Airline Highway.
The problem wasn't detected until the first employees showed up for work at the downtown courthouse before 7 a.m. Monday, when it was discovered that the metal detectors, elevators, security doors and air conditioning system weren't functioning, 19th Judicial District Court Judicial Administrator Ann McCrory said.
"We couldn't secure the building," 19th JDC Chief Judge William Morvant said. "It caused a real security concern for the general public and the employees."
At that point, only employees, attorneys and potential jurors were allowed inside the courthouse. A long line of patrons stretched from the courthouse doors to the front of Baton Rouge City Court down the street.
By mid-morning, the problem grew even worse inside the courthouse on the corner of North Boulevard and St. Louis Street when the telephones and internet service failed.
Morvant signed an emergency order at mid-morning closing the 11-story courthouse due to "the emergency created by various system failures and resulting security concerns," the order stated.
"Hopefully we'll be up and running tomorrow," he said in an interview.
Morvant's order sent about 130 19th JDC employees home for the day as well as some 70 East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court employees who work in the courthouse in the civil and criminal sections.
When the 19th JDC's computer server also went down, the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court's operations at City Hall and Airline Highway were forced to close because they are linked into the 19th JDC server, said Clerk of Court spokesman Fred Sliman. That happened around 1 p.m.
The closure of Clerk of Court offices at City Hall meant a loss of vital services such as marriage licenses, passport applications, land records, mortgage documents and legal research.
The loss of elevator service inside the courthouse meant employees had to walk up concrete stairs to get to their respective floors in the 11-story building, and inmates were not brought to the courthouse because they could not be transported by special prisoner elevators to the various courtrooms.
All criminal court appearances set for Monday will be reassigned to another date. Some persons who waited outside the courthouse were given notices of their new court dates. The rest will receive notices in the mail.
"We're sorry for the inconvenience for anyone who was expecting their day in court today," McCrory said as she sat in Morvant's eighth-floor office. "It was unavoidable."
Kyle Algood, building superintendent for the city-parish Department of Public Works, said the culprit in Monday's mayhem was a valve that split in an air handling unit on the second floor the courthouse. Water then leaked down two floors onto a main breaker panel, causing the chillers and elevators to shut down.
The closure of the 19th JDC, Family Court inside the courthouse, and the Clerk of Court offices will be considered a legal holiday, meaning all filing deadlines will be extended.