Tough Sell

     California's courts keep getting hit with bad news.
     Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest court in the nation, announced the closure of 10 courthouses as part of a plan to shave $50 million in the next fiscal year.
     This week, the governor's department of finance announced that all the state courts must spend down their reserves to make up for $200 million that was supposed to be coming from the state this fiscal year.
     That leaves the reserve funds, court savings accounts for lean times, bone dry for next year. It takes away any cushion the courts had for cuts that have piled on top of each other.
     It all wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for Ron George's birds coming home to roost.
     The old chief justice held a Vader-like grip on the California court system for 14 years. The officials working under him at the Administrative Office of the Courts developed a philosophy that said professional administrators are the cat's meow of the court system, and that presiding judges are simply padding their resumes.
     That cockamamy view was espoused by folks now in the very top echelon of the administrative office, the San Francisco-based, central bureaucracy of California's courts.
     In lock step with those views came a series of disastrous financial decisions by those top administrators, the biggest being the half-billion dollars spent on a software system that wound up this year in the junkyard.
     It would be comforting to say those are the sins of the past.
     But even now some of the trial courts, in the heart of hard times, continue to spend money on doubtful technical projects. Those dubious decisions make it that much harder to convince the governor and the Legislature that the courts should receive more funds.
     For example, California's fourth biggest court, San Bernardino Superior recently started scanning documents and selling them online -- a decision made in the absolute hottest heat of the court budget crisis. But those programs cost millions and use up lots of staff.
     Based on our tracking, the result is that roughly two thirds of the new actions cannot be seen, neither online nor at the courthouse, for at least a month. After that they are old as dry bones in news terms.
     It makes sense in a way.
     If cuts make it so you can't pay people to do the job, then the job won't get done.
     But why would a court start such a project, one that costs millions and is plainly not working, when the courts is laying off staff and budget cuts are written on the wall.
     It's kind of like a person who just lost his job going out and buying a gadget-loaded car.
     In another example, the third biggest court in the state, Orange County Superior is proudly switching to e-filing.
     So we are tracking the delays that result.
     In a court that has a roughly one-to-one ratio of judges to tech staff, the new, e-filed cases take three or four days to get to where the public and press can see them.
     For the cases still filed the old-fashioned way, in paper, it takes one day.
     That one day delay was itself a step backwards for press access, caused by the decision to scan the new cases and sell copies online, another multi-million-dollar effort.
     Before that move, the press saw new actions -- critical information for lawyers in California -- at the end of the day they were filed, the traditional immediacy of access granted to the press by courts throughout California and the nation.
     So the court continues to march backwards on access while spending millions.
     The reason the tech staff is so big in the Orange County court is because of another expensive and bad technological decision, the decision to use the CCMS software that cost California's public a half-billion before it was abandoned.
     We understand that the current four-day delay in press and public access is tied to data entry requirements of that enormous, cumbersome stack of code that still infects the few courts that bit on it.
     So, as the bad financial news piles up for the courts, I can't help but think that the $500 million accumulated in the fat days and blown by bureaucrats on a foolhardy project would sure come in handy now.
     And while judges rightfully ask for more public funds, it remains true that nobody has been held to account for that extraordinary waste of public money, and that even now, even in the searing heat of cut after cut, individual courts are still making bad and expensive gambles on technology.