Trial Court Survey Reveals Deep Doubt Over Massive IT Project


     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Individual survey answers from California's trial courts in response to a state audit reveal a deep well of anger among trial judges over the use of money by the judiciary's administrative agency, even as the agency moved last week against a bill returning fiscal power to the trial courts.
      The survey answers show that trial court judges believe they have been left out of decisions affecting their courts and they are highly skeptical of money spent on a big IT project by central administrators. They also knock down one by one the key arguments made by bureaucrats to justify their diversion of funds from the trial courts.
      In a region by region breakdown, Kern County's trial court was the most outspoken among those in the San Joaquin Valley. The court condemned one of the central administrative agency's pet projects, an IT system now approaching $2 billion in projected cost, saying it is "completely unsupported by any conceivable benefit."
      Following a blistering report earlier this year by the state auditor, Courthouse News requested the individual survey answers from the trial courts and, given the volume of the comments, is breaking them down region by region, starting with the Central Valley that includes Kern, Kings, Stanislaus, Merced, Mariposa and Tulare counties.
      The blast from Kern County says that combining criminal and civil systems would yield no net benefit, that the cost of the IT system called the Court Case Managements System is not justified, and that a cheap, off-the-shelf system for case management would likely to the job better. And because law enforcement agencies have said they are not going to use the system, said Kern, it is next to useless.
      Because the server housing the data from CCMS is run by a vendor and kept out of state, the system violates the local court's duties under the state Constitution, said the court in its survey response. "The Kern Court is mandated to keep its own data under its sole control."
     And most importantly, the court says the extraordinary amount of money paid to a private contractor for the IT system violates the law set up to pay for the operation of California's trial courts, because Kern has never consented to the use of its funds for the big project.
     The court specifically rejects that argument from the court's central bureaucrats, called the Administrative Office of the Courts, that says trial courts consented to the IT project when they did not object to workshops.
     "We are aware that the AOC has contended that consent is implied because of statewide forums and workshops and the fact that there has been no objection," said Kern. "Any contention that consent has been obtained by implication is contrary to longstanding limitations on the power of public officials to commit public funds."
     In polite language, the Kern County court concludes by saying the AOC has taken its money.
     "It would appear that the AOC has in part funded CCMS development with funds indirectly obtained from Kern County without consent, by appropriating funds for general development expense that should have been allocated in part to to Kern's trial operations in the trial court budgeting process."
     At the other end of the Central Valley, in geographic terms as well as its response to the questionnaire, Stanislaus County Superior Court says that it has developed its own case management system and it's working fine.
      Nevertheless, Stanislaus supports the needs for a statewide system.
     "We just sat back and watched as the concept of a statewide system was being marketed and then developed," said the head clerk in Stanislaus who prepared the court's survey response. He described the early efforts by trial courts to develop their own case management systems as a loose confederacy.
     "AOC brought all that under needed control," says the court's executive officer Michael Tozzi. "A statewide, CCMS owned by a single vendor is essential."
     Tozzi said that he discussed the survey response with Presiding Judge Ricardo Cordova who approved of the answers in general.
     The survey answers from Stanislaus do not address the concern on how public money is being spent, which has been the driving concern for other courts in the valley and the force behind AB 1208 now pending in the state legislature.
     The bill would return fiscal and policy control over the courts back to the trial courts where it was held before the previous chief justice, Ronald George, began a decade-long campaign to centralize control of the rules and the money through one big administrative agency based in San Francisco.
     The bill follows a set of moves last fall by the central administrators that included hiking their own pay retroactively, increasing the power of local administrators through a rule change, in addition to taking $200 million from trial court trust funds to pay for the IT system, and then giving numbers to the legislature that did not reflect the full cost of the project, now pegged at $1.9 billion. However, even that number comes with an important footnote. The nearly $1 billion expected to be charged by a private vendor to put the system in place statewide is just a guess.
     But last week AB 1208 was shifted from the Assembly's accountability committee -- which asked for the statewide audit in the first place -- to the Assembly's judiciary committee, in a round of deal-making. The head of the judiciary committee also sits on the central policy council for the judiciary called the Judicial Council, which has taken a position against the bill.
      While that shift does not bode well for the bill, according to many of its backers, the reasons behind it are reflected in the survey answers from a large majority of the Central Valley courts. They are deeply concerned with the costs tied to the IT project. They also don't appreciate the imposition of a system that they say they were not asked about.
      Tulare County's trial court, for example, said that while making information available to law enforcement agencies, called "justice partners," would be beneficial, the court might not be able to handle the difficulties and expense of conversion to the new system.
      "Not all courts operate in the same manner," Tulare noted, "and it seems the AOC has chosen a one size fits all approach that does not allow flexibility."
      In Mariposa County, the court answered the survey with criticism over the way the IT system has been paid for and with the way it works.
      "The court is concerned by the use of trial court trust funds in the development of CCMS," Mariposa says. "The AOC's plan has changed significantly over the years and we do not necessarily have a grasp of what the actual plan is."
      Mariposa adds, "Certainly, the court believes that a well-developed system will bring significant benefits. Based upon the only presentation made to us at the regional level, it appears CCMS is quite complex and not user friendly."
     Madera County's survey response also shows that it believes the AOC has slighted the smaller California courts in the development and installation of the new system.
      "We have been provided no data from AOC on how conversion will occur or what will be required of the court," Madera writes. "This court has not been given the opportunity to give anything to the process but we will be expected to take whatever system others have developed and agreed to use."
     That criticism is reflected as well in the answers from Kern, which is the strongest voice among the valley courts.
     Kern says the AOC "never asked our opinion of the proposed CCMS project," which it took the opportunity of the survey to express. "In our opinion, the premise that the system is necessary for immediate statewide access to data in no way justifies the projected cost of this system."
     The court attacked the legality of the AOC's method for funding the nearly $2 billion IT project, which is primarily by taking money from trial court funds.
     "Kern Court questions whether funding of CCMS has been in accord with statutory authorization," said its survey, emphasizing that the AOC can only draw from trial court funds with the consent of all the courts statewide. "The Kern County Superior Court has never given consent for such expenditures."
     In addition, the court says it has no intention of relinquishing control of its records.
     "The law mandates a 'decentralized system of trial court management.' For these reasons every superior court must have immediate access to and control of its own data, and that case management data cannot be put into the hands of an employee who is not directly responsible to the presiding judge of that trial court," Kern says. " In our view, the Kern Court is mandated by law to keep its own data under its sole control."

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In answer to the survey questions from the state auditor,

a) Did the AOC ask the court to participate in the development of CCMS V2, V3, and/or V4?

b) Does the court believe that the AOC has provided sufficient opportunity for the court to be involved in the development of CCMS V2, V3, and/or V4?,

the individual courts answered as follows:

Kern, Y, N

Kings Y, Y

Stanislaus N, Y* (*Court's ambiguous response was "Yes. We would have declined the offer.")

Merced Y**, Y (**Court was invited to participate but lacked the resources to do so.)

Mariposa N, N

Madera Y**, N (**Court was invited to participate but lacked the resources to do so.)

Tulare N, N

Average maintenance cost for the Central Valley courts' current case management systems was $472,572 for FY 08/09, and $485,840 for FY 09/10.