Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell is not happy about being told he has to move some of the court records and criminal evidence under his control in preparation for a long-awaited construction project at the criminal courthouse on Tulane Avenue.
In a letter last month, Chief Criminal District Judge Laurie White told Morrell to vacate the rooms by June 17 to make room for the construction of two new courtrooms. But Morrell has refused to budge, saying the move would require him to place sensitive court records into the building’s flood-prone basement.
“The court wants us to move some of our stuff and put it in the basement,” Morrell said in an interview this week. “We are not moving. We are not going to the basement.”
The courthouse is owned by the city, which is also overseeing the construction. Morrell’s refusal comes as he’s preparing for another potential fight with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
During a contentious City Council committee meeting on Wednesday, Morrell vowed to defy the administration — which funds his office — by hiring about 15 new employees, even if the city is unwilling to pay for them. As The New Orleans Advocate reported, Morrell believes a court victory in a years-long funding dispute enables him to hire the employees regardless of the cost to the city. Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the ruling merely means the city can’t cut his budget below a threshold set in 2012, but does not require higher funding.
Construction was set to begin last month on the new courtrooms, according to White’s letter. The project will allow two courtrooms now housed on the third floor of the building to move into its first and second floors, which are more easily accessible. The project has been in the works since 2000, when voters approved a bond issue for criminal justice improvement projects. But it has been repeatedly delayed.
In a June 6 letter responding to White, Morrell wrote that he was worried the move could jeopardize the records. The courthouse basement famously flooded in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levee system that surrounds the city, damaging thousands of pieces of evidence. Evidence is still stored in the basement, a major point of concern in a recent report by watchdog group Court Watch NOLA.
“The 2016 Hurricane Season just started and I am not taking chances of putting court records in jeopardy of being damaged or destroyed,” Morrell wrote. “The city has failed to provide the clerk’s office with suitable facilities to house the records, evidence and property that is safe and meets FEMA’s approval.”
It’s unclear how Morrell’s refusal to vacate the space has affected the construction schedule. There was no clearly visible evidence of ongoing construction inside the courthouse earlier today. Neither White nor Landrieu’s office responded to requests for comment on this story.
According to White’s letter, Morrell signed off on the plan and has known he would have to leave one of his records storage rooms for seven years.
“This evacuation of Room 112 premises is not a new issue, as the need to have this area vacated has been discussed since April 3, 2009,” White wrote, referencing a 2009 letter from then-Chief Judge Arthur Hunter.
But in his response, Morrell wrote that he only agreed to that plan because of a promise from the city that his office would be given a large piece of another long-delayed building, the Criminal Evidence and Processing Complex at the corner of Gravier Street and South White Street. The city announced that construction on the building, which will also house the New Orleans Police Department’s crime lab, would begin last fall, but that work is yet to begin.
Morrell wrote that in the original plans for the building, his office would be given 22,000 square feet. The building has since been redesigned, and the most recent plans dedicate less than 10,000 square feet for the Clerk’s Office. That led to Morrell pulling his support for the project in 2013.
“The city had reneged on the square footage the clerk’s office would have to store records, evidence and property,” he said.
In an interview, Morrell told The Lens that the city has offered the old Naval Support Activity site on Poland Avenue as an permanent storage space for some records and evidence. But Morrell said the site, five miles away from the courthouse, is too far.