Judges Blast Pricey Computers

DEC. 21, 2010

By KATY GRIMES

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles is notorious for glacially paced licensing procedures, lackluster customer service and a horrifically expensive, unreliable computer system. But the DMV isn’t the only state agency sporting pricey computers wrought with problems – welcome to the California State Courts, where the computer Court Case Management System (CCMS) price tag now exceeds $1 billion, a tad higher than the original $250 million estimate.

One group of judges is very unhappy with the computer system, as well as the swelling costs, the expanding state court staff needed to operate the system and limited access to the server, which for some reason is located in Arizona. Allegations also recently surfaced about a former Marin County employee accepting bribes in exchange for approving the problematic computer system.

The frustrated judges formed the Alliance of California Judges, a group working for many different types of reforms in the judiciary. Formed on Sept. 11, 2009 “in response to the unprecedented financial crisis now facing our judicial branch,” the judges want “to insure that our courts remain open and accessible, to insure accountable local management of the California courts, to guarantee financial responsibility, to minimize statewide bureaucracy, and to insure a strong preference for local flexibility in the conduct of court affairs.”

The alliance has been vocal about the stratospheric computer cost, as well as the system’s dysfunction and unreliability. But instead of cutting back on the computer system to save money, court employees have been furloughed, public counter hours cut and access to court clerks greatly lessened.

“The judges portray the $1.3 billion already spent by the Administrative Office of the Courts as a waste of money for a computer system that already is falling into disuse while generating multimillion-dollar bills from private consultants,” reported the Courthouse News Service. Adding insult to injury, the Administrative Office of the Courts – the courts’ administrative authority – suggested that the judges “lack understanding.”

“I’ve listened to the AOC for 22 years and if you don’t agree with them, you’re misinformed and on the fringe. It’s their standard response,” Los Angeles Judge Charles Horan responded in an April news story.

The presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court spoke last week on behalf of the Court as well as the Alliance of Judges, to the Administrative Office of the Courts and Judicial Council (the policy making arm of the courts): “We are a group of judges who believe as I think perhaps everyone in this room believes, that the central organizing principle of the judiciary is to mete out justice, is to make Courts available to civil and criminal practitioners who are seeking civil and criminal justice.”

White did not mince words addressing the state judiciary groups.  “CCMS has been a nice concept, but a misadventure, enormously expensive, a very long road to a very small house,” he said. “We’re not asking to unpave the road behind us, but we are saying, ‘Let’s stop. Let’s run the courts and wait on the expansion of CCMS.'”‘

According to a report issued last spring by California’s Office of Information Technology, the computer system will not be completely up and running until April 2011, and will cost an additional $79 million a year to maintain.

Bill Maile, a spokesperson with the Office of Technology Services, said that his department issued the report more than one year ago and decided to “let the report speak for itself” rather than issuing explanations about the findings.

The state IT agency was tasked with issuance of the report because it “speaks to our expertise and oversight in these matters,” Maile said. But he said his department focus is primarily on the executive branch and not the county court systems.

Some county courts are refusing to bring the system online, including Sacramento County. Deciphering whether the problems are real computer issues or just grumbling about having to make the leap to new systems is an issue. Maile declined to comment and instead referred to the report.

The California court system is the largest and most complex in the country, and is logistically very challenging, according to Maile. His agency recommended that no single county take priority over the entire court system, and “the standardizing must be collaborative and inclusive.”

Phillip Carrizosa, a spokesperson with the Administrative Office of the Courts, explained that the resistance is mainly coming from the Sacramento Courts. “It doesn’t do all the things they want it to do,” he said. “We’ve acknowledged there are problems, and are just asking for them to give us a chance to show them it can and will work. San Diego is delighted with it.”

But one Superior Court judge said that San Diego County and Orange County had to perform their own internal fixes to make the state computer system work. “Sacramento would love it if we could get Orange County’s fixes,” the judge said. “It’s an interesting conundrum because we all believe that there needs to be a statewide system.”

At the AOC meeting last week, Judge White criticized the judicial council for voting to divert $88 million from the trial court fund to the CCMS computer system – just for this current fiscal year. “And if this body says today that it can take $106 million or $88 million of trial court money and put it — some significant subset of it, which is totally discretionary — into advancing and expanding a computer operation that is frankly not working well, instead of keeping courts open, Gov.-elect Brown will see that,” he said.

White was also very critical of the AOC pay raise. “Trial court employees received nothing,” he wrote to fellow judges.

White said that there are hundreds of judges in this state who know that the AOC and Judicial Council’s vote to pull money from them means the computer system is a higher priority than keeping trial courts opened. “It is apparent that if the some $169 million dollars that this body appropriated over to the CCMS project in October of 2009 had not been sent that way, we could have kept all of the courts open last year,” he said.




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