New Technology Plan for California Courts Salted With Skepticism From Past

     A new technology roadmap for California's courts has resulted in sharply divergent reactions as it carries its cartographers' hopes of convincing the Legislature to approve new funds in the aftermath of an earlier technology fiasco.
     In charge of the new plan for a "digital court" is the Judicial Council's Technology Committee, a body that has been hammered over the failure of an ambitious, wasteful, mismanaged and now-defunct software project called the Court Case Management System.
     The 26- page plan unveiled last week seeks to set new standards for court technology, set priorities and recommend how to pay the bill. Long on general phrasing and short on specifics, it was drawn with the Legislature and its purse string power in mind.
     "I don't personally have a lot of confidence in the current efforts," said Judge Andy Banks of Orange County, "in large part because of the integral involvement of people who were so invested in CCMS and its defense."
     Judge David Lampe in Kern County said the first problem with the road map is that the Judicial Council does not have the power to tell local courts what to do.
     "The Judicial Council is not the governing body of the courts," said Lampe. "It has no constitutional or statutory authority to dictate IT policy to the independent superior courts of the state."
     "The other problem with the policy," he said, "is that it is being supervised and developed by the same individuals who presided over the disastrous CCMS fiasco, which cost the public over $500 million of public funds."
     The newly adopted plan called the Judicial Branch Technology, Governance, Strategy, and Funding Proposal -- better known as the "technology roadmap" -- is being touted as the only way to move forward in the aftermath of CCMS.
     "Our current funding situation is bleak or uncertain," said Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst at the council meeting week. "We have to rebuild our credibility, with the Department of Finance, with the Legislature, with the executive branch, for managing tech projects so that we can build the case for restoring funding for technology."
     Referring to the governor's technology agency, she said, "It was made clear that without a good strategic plan the branch just wasn't going to get any funds for technology."
     On a related issue, the Legislature also made clear last year that a condition of receiving the current budget funds was that the council must open its myriad committees and task forces to the press and public.
     A rule proposed by the council late last year to open the committees is criticized as so riddled with exceptions and conditions that they eat up the rule. The proposed rule is now up for public comment.
     Illustrating the closed-door nature of the committees, none of the meetings of the Technology Committee or its underlying task force that resulted in the roadmap were open to press and public.
     Nor does the roadmap suggest they will be in the future.
     The central player in the development of the new plan is the Technology Committee, which is also the source of much of the doubt over its chance for success.
     A preliminary statement to the plan reads, "The Judicial Council Technology Committee recommends conceptually approving the work to date of the Technology Planning Task Force." The Technology Committee added that the task force "is charged with defining judicial branch technology governance."
     In its language, the roadmap often employs a form of administrative expression that was criticized by trial court judges in the CCMS struggle as "techno babble." For example, the road map says its approach "centers on working as an information technology community that can form consortia to leverage and optimize resources to achieve its goals and overall branch objectives."
     But the plan is defended in more conventional English by trial court administrators who say the roadmap is being charted with a lot of local help from their courts.
     "We've listened very carefully to the criticism," said Santa Clara court executive David Yamasaki by email. "The effort in the latest technology plan is being developed through collaboration with the trial courts. We all meet regularly to share information that is used for the development of our plan going forward."
     "The idea of the digital court really is to use technology to improve access to justice and efficiencies through the use of this technology," Robert Oyung, the head IT person for Santa Clara Superior Court, told the council.
     In unveiling the long-awaited plan at the council's recent meeting, Santa Barbara Judge James Herman noted that Governor Jerry Brown mentioned the plan favorably in his January budget summary.
     "This is an important message from the governor in terms of willingness of the administration to support our efforts as far as technology is concerned," Herman told the council.
     Herman was one of the powerful defenders of CCMS, and he chairs the committee formerly called the CCMS Internal Committee and now called the Technology Committee. His leadership of that committee, and its underlying task force, has been challenged by judges who want the council to make a clean break from its technology past and start anew.
     Judges in the reform group Alliance of California Judges argue that the council has no authority to set policy for the trial courts, and that includes technology. One of the main criticisms of CCMS from trial judges was that the software was being imposed on them without their input or consent, mostly by the council's bureaucratic arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     While the new roadmap pledges a break from the old ways and preaches collaboration, some judges say they have heard it all before.
     "I have heard the claim of a collaborative effort but also recall that CCMS was touted by its supporters at the AOC as being developed with strong input and participation by local courts. The CCMS audit as I recall disclosed the truth about the depth of involvement," said Judge Banks referring to the audit's conclusion that there was in fact almost no involvement by the trial courts.
     Still, said Banks, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has the responsibility and the power to make committee appointments.
     "I respect that the Chief gets to appoint whomever she wants," he said. "It would be nice to see new and different persons put into these slots to allow for confidence to develop rather than seeing the same persons who were shown to be incorrect about CCMS and its value and its alleged cost efficiencies placed in leadership roles. But again, it is the Chief's call."
     As for the hope of the road map's authors that it will restore the credibility of the judiciary in matters of technology, that remains in doubt."Only time will tell," said Banks. "There is a big credibility problem with the Legislature and the Governor. I would expect it will take a lot longer for it to improve than people at the Council and the AOC realize."