Newly opened Orleans Justice Center has ‘absolutely unacceptable’ level of violence, staff ‘not in control,’ experts say _lowres

Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sheriff Marlin Gusman leaves the podium after a news conference last week. Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin is left, right is attorney James M. Williams.

Despite receiving an alarming update this week on conditions at the city’s new jail, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk sounded a temperate tone in questioning Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the elected official who recently opened the new facility, known as the Orleans Justice Center.

But one of the sheriff’s top litigators did not prove as adept at escaping Africk’s ire.

James M. Williams, a well-known New Orleans trial lawyer, found himself sidelined from a high-profile court hearing Tuesday after rankling the judge on consecutive days, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The latest confrontation unfolded behind closed doors Tuesday morning as Africk addressed attorneys about a series of federally supervised jail reforms — an agreement known as a consent decree that has been stymied in part by staffing shortages at the Sheriff’s Office.

At some point during the private huddle, Williams shook his head in disagreement as the judge was speaking, two of the sources said.

Africk, who a day earlier had lectured Williams for arguing with another attorney in court, took exception to the gesture and, in a highly unusual move, barred Williams from asking any questions at the hearing later that day.

It was not clear whether Williams was explicitly banned from the courtroom, but he was conspicuously absent from the most important court proceeding since the Sheriff’s Office closed Orleans Parish Prison and transferred inmates into the new $150 million lockup in September.

After Williams left Africk’s chambers, the judge told the remaining parties “that shaking your head at him is not permissible,” according to one person in attendance. “He turned to Blake Arcuri” — another Gusman attorney — “and said, ‘You’re going to be asking the questions today.’ ”

The sources described the exchange on the condition of anonymity because it did not occur in open court.

Williams did not return calls and text messages seeking comment Wednesday.

The run-in highlighted Africk’s growing frustration with a case he has described as “overlawyered,” referring to attorneys for Gusman, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and inmates all crowding the courtroom. The judge has expressed repeated qualms about Gusman employing multiple law firms and the mounting legal fees accruing at a time when the jail reforms appear to be making limited progress.

“Without knowing all the facts, what it tells me is that the judge has had enough, and he’s sending a message to all of the parties,” said Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor and president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Goyeneche, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, added, “There’s only one person in control and one person who’s going to have the last word in all of this, and that’s Judge Africk.”

Even before Africk received expert testimony that inmate-on-inmate attacks have become commonplace at the new jail, he demanded a monthly breakdown of the attorneys’ fees Gusman has paid over the past two years.

The Chehardy Sherman Williams firm bills the Sheriff’s Office $175 an hour for its services, according to an August 2015 letter, and usually dispatches another attorney, Inemesit U. O’Boyle, to assist Williams in court proceedings. Gusman pays the same rate per attorney to the Usry Weeks & Matthews law firm, where Arcuri works and which also represents the Sheriff’s Office in responding to public records requests. That firm previously capped its billings to the Sheriff’s Office at $65,000 per month, but that caveat was removed in March from the firm’s legal representation agreement, a change Gusman approved.

The Landrieu administration, which is heavily involved in the litigation because it must fund the jail’s operations, also is well represented, paying attorneys Harry Rosenberg, of Phelps Dunbar, and Ralph Capitelli, of Capitelli & Wicker, to assist City Attorney Rebecca Dietz.

“What is it costing the city of New Orleans?” Africk asked at the most recent hearing. “Instead of the money being used to secure the jail ... we’re paying lawyers. The city is, in essence, paying the sheriff’s lawyers, and the city is also, in essence, paying the plaintiffs’ lawyers.”

The consent decree stemmed from a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of inmates nearly four years ago complaining about conditions at the old jail.

Williams first irritated the judge shortly after enrolling in the case when he filed a series of court papers after midnight on the eve of an early-morning hearing — documents Africk dismissed as a “self-serving” public relations maneuver.

“I’m not going to allow the court to be used as a PR agent,” the judge said at that December 2014 hearing, ordering the filings removed from the record.

The episode in chambers Tuesday “was probably the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” Goyeneche said, referring to a run-in the day before in open court when Africk spoke over Williams and barked that the lawyer was “not the king of the courtroom.”

The judge on Monday also fined the attorneys for the city and the Sheriff’s Office $1,000 per side for missing a filing deadline.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 4, 2016, to include additional details of the Usry Weeks & Matthews law firm’s representation of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.