Sunday, October 4, 2020

Courthouses of St. Tammany Parish

A History Compiled By Judge Frederick S. Ellis

(Published 2003)

History tells us that there have been about seven courthouses in St. Tammany Parish over the years. I say about seven because there is very little information about the period after the parish seat was removed from Claiborne to Covington, sometime between 1818 and 1830.
The very first courthouse was located near Enon, on the property of Judge Thomas C. Warner, who was the first Parish Judge of St. Tammany Parish. At that time, the parish consisted of all of Washington and St. Tammany parishes, and that part of Tangipahoa Parish lying east of the Tangipahoa River. 
The commissioners who located the site were instructed to place it within three miles of what they perceived to be the center of the parish. Fortuitously, they found that spot to be on the Judge's property, and the courthouse was built.

After the parish seat was moved, a few years later, Judge Warner is said to have used it for a hay barn. Then, in 1819, when Washington Parish was created, it was cleaned out, and used as a courthouse again.

In 1817, an election was held to relocate the parish seat. As a result of that election, the legislature named five commissioners, David B. Morgan, Jesse R. Jones, John Wright, James Tate and Daniel Edwards to select "the most proper site for a permanent seat of justice in or near the Town of Covington."

Jones had come to Covington in 1813, where he achieved great success, both politically and financially. His principal residence was a beautiful old Georgian house that stood near the entrance to what is now Bogue Falaya Park. He was a member of the first town council elected in Covington and served as the third parish judge of St. Tammany. He later became a district judge and member of the state legislature.

One local legend credits Judge Jones with naming Covington, which was first dedicated in 1816 as the Town of Wharton. One day, according to the story, Jones, then a rising young lawyer who had fought with Andrew Jackson, was enjoying a glass of fine Kentucky whiskey with friends at a local tavern when he said, "If we are going to confer honor on anything when we rename this town, let us choose something worthy of the honor. I don't know of anything that's given us all such mellow and consistent pleasure as this Blue Grass whiskey from Covington. Therefore, I make a motion that hereafter this town be known as Covington."

In time, in their quest for a location for the parish's seat of justice, Judge Jones and his fellow commissioners turned their attention to an offer, made by Robert Layton. Layton was an interesting young man. He had changed his name from Lawn to Layton. His mother, Mary Dawson Lawn lived in Covington. She was the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, and the widow of Buxton Lawn, a child of King George III of England by Hannah Lightfoot. 
Some say that George and Hannah were legally married, but that when he unexpectedly became the Prince of Wales, and heir to the throne of England, he was forced to put her aside. Robert's sister, Eliza Lawn, married William B. Ligon, who was, at that time, Sheriff of St. Tammany Parish.

Robert Layton was also the President of the Claiborne Company, which had been established in 1813. The company bought a large part of the Kleinschmidt Spanish land grant, located across the Bogue Falaya River from Covington. There it laid out a town called Claiborne, undoubtedly after the American Governor of Louisiana, William Charles Cole Claiborne.

 In return for having the commission select Claiborne as the parish seat, the Claiborne Company agreed to build a courthouse and jail in the town. The commissioners bought into that idea, and selected the Town of Claiborne as the second seat of justice in St. Tammany Parish.

The building which they erected as the courthouse still stands in Clai­borne, but the jail has long since disappeared. There is a cottage still standing near the old courthouse which is reputed to have been its law library.

After its short tenure as the courthouse, the building built by the Claiborne Company became a private resi­dence for a number of years, and then a Catholic Semi­nary. Some years after the Civil War ended, it was reno­vated into a hotel by the Jaufroid family, and beginning in 1880, operated as such for many years. 

Jules B. Maille also operated it as a hotel, and conducted a school there. Later, Dr. Numa Hebert operated it as a hotel, and made his home there. The property, including the old court­house, is now owned by the heirs of Robert L. Lobdell.

I am not sure when the parish seat was moved from Claiborne to Covington. There is little or no information on how the new courthouse looked, or of what it was built. The only mention I found was in a letter from Judge Jesse Jones to the Police Jury in 1830, in which he said that they would have to appropriate $1000.00 to pay towards the price of the courthouse.

In about 1875, there were complaints about the condi­tion of that early courthouse, which was said to be in a state of near ruin. Shortly thereafter, a new courthouse was built, at a cost of something under $10,000.00. Once again, nothing is known about this courthouse, except that, within a very few years, less than ten, it too was approaching a state of ruin.

In 1885, a new brick courthouse was built on Boston Street, which was to remain in use until it was torn down in 1958, to be replaced by a new edifice. 

It had a spacious courtroom on the second floor, along with a smaller room to be used by the Court of Appeal, which at that time rode circuit. To the right of the front door was the office of the Clerk of Court, who enjoyed, in later years, a large vault built onto the side of the building to house the mortgage, conveyance and court records. 

The Sheriff had a small, two room office to the left of the front door. The assessor's office was behind the Clerk, and the Registrar of Voters across the center hall from him. The Police Jury had a large room in a separate building in the rear, attached to the main building by a breezeway. Completely detached from the main building, but adjoining the Police Jury office, was the parish jail.

During that entire period, St. Tammany Parish was part of various judicial districts, sometimes including the neigh­boring parishes of Washington, Tangipahoa, Livingston, and St. Helena, but always it was served by only one judge. After the Constitution of 1921, it was included in the Twen­ty Second Judicial District, along with Washington Parish. 

As late as the 1950s when the 1885 courthouse was torn down, the district was served by only one judge, who held court in Covington for one week per month.

Beginning in the early fifties, the population of St. Tammany Parish began to increase rapidly, more than doubling during that decade. All of the departments of the parish government were suffering with a severe shortage of space. By 1959 a decision was made to build a new courthouse to alleviate the shortage on the site formerly occupied by the 1885 courthouse.

 In the interim, the cour­thouse personnel moved to the basement of the grammar school on Jefferson Avenue. The gymnasium became the courtroom, and it was in this room that the famous hear­ing on the sanity of Earl K. Long was held. In 1960, the "new" courthouse was completed, and the various departments of parish government moved in.

This courthouse had space for the Sheriff, Clerk of Court, Assessor, District Attorney, Registrar of Voters, the Police Jury, one judge, and, on the third floor, the jail, which occupied less than half of the available space. In 1960, because of an increased case load, a second judge was added to the district. 

Almost immediately, because of the continued increase in the population of St. Tammany Parish, space shortages began to occur. The Clerk was forced to use the basement for additional storage and office space. As new judges became necessary, the parish government began to expand into adjoining buildings. 
The old Southern Hotel became the Parish Administrative Annex, and housed a number of judges. A new jail had to be built just north of the parish fairgrounds. The Sheriff's office was expanding at a rapid rate.

It became obvious more than ten years ago that a new courthouse was a necessity. Two efforts to build new courthouses, the first on Highway 190 near Holiday Square, and the second in Bogue Falaya Plaza (now the site of the Village Walk development) were soundly defeated at the polls.

Finally, in this year of our Lord 2003, an adequate structure has appeared. The first courthouse would just about fit into the lobby of the imposing new Justice Cen­ter, which, in addition to the Clerk, Sheriff, Assessor and Registrar of Voters, houses the District Attorney and ten judges.

Judge Jesse Jones wouldn't know what to make of it."

The new Justice Center at the intersection of Theard and Columbia St.