The Founding of the Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Society and
Its Connection to Restoration of the Supreme Court Building
Judge James L. Dennis
United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
Over the years I have been proud of the growth of the Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Society and the success of its first major project – the restoration of the Louisiana Supreme Court building at 400 Royal Street – as well as the parts we all played in their beginnings.
Actually the stories of the founding of the Society and the restoration of the building are inextricably linked. After we on the Louisiana Supreme Court decided to undertake the restoration, our first major hurdle was to explain our plan to then Governor Treen and gain his support for the project. He agreed to do so and during his administration the first architects were selected and the original plans of the reconstruction were drawn.
But we encountered major obstacles from the beginning. First, a cornice fell off the building, and its replacement added a significant amount to the cost of the restoration. Then, asbestos abatement was delayed inordinately by the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission’s continuing occupancy of work space for some of its employees in the building. This in tum delayed the whole project because asbestos abatement absolutely had to be done before construction workers could enter the building, and, of course, it could not be done while the Wildlife employees occupied any part of the building. The Commission claimed it lacked funds to relocate the employees in other office space.
Soon we were asking for and receiving the help of a new Governor, Buddy Roemer. Our major accomplishment during his administration was obtaining the legal transfer of the building from the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to the Supreme Court. That did not come easily. We had thought it would be a simple matter for the Governor to order the Commission to relinquish the property and have the Legislature approve the transfer in a quick resolution! The Commissioners, however, decided to buck the Governor and threatened to embroil us all in a legislative battle. Governor Roemer ultimately worked it out. How, I’m not sure, but the talk and rumor was that the Commission withdrew its opposition after somehow receiving a substantial amount of federal funds for additional wildlife habitat.
After gaining legal possession, the Supreme Court immediately held a ceremonial sitting in the building amidst fallen debris and flying pigeons. We wanted to ostentatiously publicize the Court’s right and title to the building and our plans for its restoration because of perceived threats to our using the old courthouse for, of all things, a courthouse!
The lack of local political support for the project was incredible. Mayor Barthelemy was rumored to have hosted a group of French business persons and welcomed their interest in converting the old courthouse into a vertical shopping mall. Editorials periodically appeared in the media against the building as an eyesore and in favor of razing the structure and replacing it with a park. There were frequent flurries of talk of a casino if that type of gambling was ever excepted from the definition of illegal gambling, like parimutuel racing had been for years. We appeared often on TV, radio, and before citizen groups and the Times Picayune editorial board, arguing that the return of the Court, a former living use, to the French Quarter, bringing with it the restoration and re-occupancy of the former local, state, and federal courthouse, would help to revitalize and sustain the Quarter as New Orleans’s oldest and most valuable tourist attraction. We described, in comparison, the successful renovation of a part of the old City of Montreal, and stressed that the advocates of that project had said that the key to their success was that they had emphasized changes and improvements that returned former living uses to the area.
All of this serendipitously set the stage for the birth of the Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Society.
When Governor Edwards took office for the last time, the talk of turning the 400 Royal Street Courthouse into a casino, perhaps with his blessings, increased. Prior to asking him to support, rather than oppose, the Supreme Court’s restoration of the building, I felt it extremely important for us to have the backing of prominent and politically active attorneys to whom he might lend a favorable ear. It occurred to me that perhaps the best strategy would be to quickly organize a Supreme Court Historical Society, similar to that of the United States Supreme Court and several other states, to demonstrate broad support for the project by attorneys and other citizens throughout the state. As the first step, two lawyers, Eldon Fallon (who later became a U.S. district judge) and James Coleman were recruited to head up a proposed board of directors. Next, other attorneys were invited to serve on the board, taking care to choose persons who were either close to or friendly toward the Governor. I made sure that everyone understood that the Society would be a permanent historical organization but that its first major project would be to assist the Court in restoration of the courthouse. Eldon and Jimmy gave me a letter from them addressed to the Governor on behalf of the proposed board, all of whom consented to be named on the letterhead, informing the Governor of the Society’s founding and of its full devotion to supporting the Supreme Court in restoring its 400 Royal Street courthouse.
I carried the letter in my pocket when our entire court called upon the Governor at the mansion. I told him that we had come to seek his active support to finish the restoration project during his administration so that his name would appear on the building plaque along with the Court. He immediately said something like, “I don’t know why you fellows want that old building, but if that’s what you want, I’ll support you wholeheartedly.” I sensed that one or more of his friends on the recently formed Society board may have already bent his ear – he was usually a step or two ahead of everyone who came to see him anyway. So, instead of the board’s letter, I pulled out a laundry list of things we needed done to facilitate the renovation, such as moving the Wildlife and Fisheries employees out of the building so that asbestos abatement could be done. He agreed to every item on the list, telling his executive counsel, Bill Roberts, in our presence to see that they were carried out.
Of course, it was not all smooth sailing after that, but at that point we had made significant progress: we had initiated not only a historical society but also an effective support organization, with a dynamic board and two unexcelled leaders; we had blunted any opposition from within the executive branch; and the Governor helped us in many ways, some of which we had not expected. For example, he allowed the Court to confer with him and have input in the selection of a new architect for the project. With our support and approval, Pio Lyons was selected to become the architect of the restoration. We could not have made a better choice. Pio masterfully steered all aspects of the restoration into a superbly successful completion.
One short vignette about the building itself: It is not true as some believe that the Court or any of its members had long been seriously interested in or maneuvering for the restoration of the 400 Royal Street property. Instead, we became dedicated to this goal by a tortuous, non-linear route.
It is true that many individuals had speculated upon some type of restoration previously. I had heard that either the Criminal District Court or the Civil District Court of Orleans Parish had conducted a somewhat thorough study but concluded that it was not feasible for them. I became acquainted with this when I visited Mayor Dutch Morial, with whom I had served in the legislature. My thought was that the Supreme Court might want to add on to the front of its woefully outgrown building soon. Instead of adding to our building, however, he encouraged us to think about the old building at 400 Royal, which he and others had once contemplated using to house the court of appeal, saying that it could be restored as a magnificent edifice. Nevertheless, when we later, through the arrangement of Eugene Murret, our Judicial Administrator, had a study done by Walter Sobel, a nationally known courthouse architect from Chicago, none of us were much interested in 400 Royal or in renovation, rather than new construction. For one thing, it seemed too problematic, we’d have to bring in the Court of Appeal and the Attorney General to sell the Legislature on the idea as a rent saving project. Mr. Sobel sketched out four alternatives. Two involved new buildings on likely pieces of property in the city. One was a plan to add on to the Loyola Street Courthouse. Finally, he proposed the renovation of 400 Royal Street. As I said, there was not much interest in the renovation idea. We consumed most of his time with us discussing the other alternatives. Finally, he said, “Look, I have to leave tomorrow; I suggest that you owe it to yourselves to let me walk you through that old courthouse. It has some magnificent material in it that cannot be replicated today.” So we did.
The place was a shambles inside. The elevators, of course, had stopped working years before. The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission probably had never spent a dime on building maintenance. As we walked up the stairs and toured each floor we began to get a better idea of how big it was. Finally, when we reached the fourth floor, I looked up and the ceiling seemed to shoot up from 20 feet to about 30 or 40 feet, I remembered the beautiful semi-circular courtroom on the same floor where I had argued a case before the U.S. Fifth Circuit in about 1965. I thought silently, “This is where the Supreme Court belongs.”
As we came away from the building later, we began to discover that the old courthouse had sold itself to many of us. We soon came to a consensus – we were going to try to return the Court to the French Quarter. As we pursued this plan, the Old building ignited our imaginations even more. If we could bring this about, we thought and dreamed, who else, what other state, would have anything like this magnificently restored courthouse in such a historic and beautiful setting?
Much more had to be done between those beginnings and the fruition of the Society and the Courthouse restoration that has now been achieved.
I am gratified to have labored in this good cause alongside Justice, later Chief Justice, Pascal Calogero and other members of the Court and staff from the early 1980’s until I left the Supreme Court to become a federal circuit judge in October, 1995. We spent many long exhausting hours and days on the road to Baton Rouge, appearing in the role of supplicants before sometimes skeptical committees. We spent hours waiting near the house or senate floor in hopes of getting a few minutes with hard to catch members. We ate late, too late, dinners with legislative members, with a full day of court work ahead of us early the next morning. We all had to prepare for our regular jobs. I had to think like a calm analytical judge rather than a gregarious politician.
After the advent of the Society in 1992 we received marvelous support and strength from Eldon Fallon and Jimmy Coleman and the members of the Society. I know that Chief Justice Calogero courageously fought many additional decisive battles after I departed in 1995. I give him, Eldon, Jimmy, and the Society’s members full credit for overcoming all of the considerable remaining obstacles and actually completing in magnificent form the goals which seemed almost impossible in the beginning. There are few undertakings in which I am more gratified to have participated as a public officer than the restoration of the present Supreme Court building and in the founding and nurturing of the Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Society.
My only regret is that I could not be there to help in the final stage of the restoration saga. There’s nothing quite like a good fight alongside great colleagues for a noble cause in which we truly believe.