Walking into the single working elevator at Orleans Parish Civil District Court is an act of faith that leaves lawyers praying the creaky lift will reach the floor they want.
“I always assume that I’m going to get stuck,” said attorney Richard Perque, who stopped using the elevator three years ago unless he is toting a banker’s box of records. “It’s a running joke at the courthouse.”
On Thursday, an elevator failure forced the closure of the four-story courthouse for the eighth time this year, according to Chief Judge Paulette Irons.
The courthouse will remain closed until Monday, a spokesman said.
Officials say they have a plan to install three new elevators at the building, which is owned by the city of New Orleans, over the next year.
The judges and lawyers who spend their days inside the aging structure will be glad to get them — but they describe the elevator breakdowns as a symptom of larger problems with the increasingly decrepit building.
The future of the Civil District Courthouse has been up in the air since 2014, when former Mayor Mitch Landrieu dropped a plan to move the court and City Hall into the vacant former Charity Hospital building.
A new plan for replacing the courthouse, which was built more than 50 years ago next to City Hall at Loyola Avenue and Poydras Street, remains elusive. Irons said she is optimistic that new Mayor LaToya Cantrell will come up with one.
“We need a new building completely. And I do believe that our new mayor has made that a priority. We’re very hopeful that we don’t get lost. She has been here, she’s seen the conditions, and she has made that a priority,” Irons said. “This is an access to justice issue, that people cannot get up the stairs.”
Court officials have sent the city’s Property Management Department a near-constant stream of requests for repairs in recent years, according to a series of emails obtained by radio host Gerod Stevens, who shared them with The New Orleans Advocate.
Judges and litigants must contend with leaky ceilings, moldy walls and electrical outages. Sometimes the disrepair has posed an actual physical danger.
“Yesterday the wooden door molding over the courtroom door (room 406) fell on an attorney’s head and she received a large gash and had to be transported to the hospital by ambulance,” Judicial Administrator Traci Dias said in a Jan. 9 email. “Please have someone come screw the remaining molding in so that no more falls and injures another person.”
In another plaintive email, from March 28 last year, Dias asked if the city could at least paint the stairwells, which have received a surge in foot traffic because of the faulty elevators.
“They are in bad shape with a lot of peeling paint and dirt,” Dias said. “If there isn’t money in the budget to paint, can we at least get them deep cleaned?”
The broken elevator has become such a recurrent motif at the courthouse that it even inspired a bill introduced by state Sen. JP Morrell at the Legislature this year. The bill, which has been sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature, would fine the city $2,500 for every day beyond three weeks that the elevator is out of commission.
Cantrell has not given a firm commitment or set a timeline for planning a new building, Irons said.
The city did not immediately comment on the courthouse planning process.
In the meantime, the city is moving forward with installing new elevators. Cantrell spokeswoman LaTonya Norton said two elevators are set to be completed by Oct. 29. Another will be up and running by June 2019, according to the city’s plan.
The new elevators cannot come quickly enough for attorneys like Perque, who sees the malfunctioning lift as one more of the city’s many infrastructure woes.
Perque said a client who had a Thursday afternoon hearing in family court now has to wait for a new court date. She has not seen her child for more than two months.
“How do you tell somebody who’s dealing with a situation regarding custody of their children that we can’t make a decision because there are no elevators?” he asked. “They don’t understand it, and I don’t understand it anymore.”