Tech Roadmap for CA Courts Brings Swift, Hard Reaction

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A technology roadmap OK'd at the Judicial Council is unlikely to get a favorable reaction from the Legislature, judges said Monday, adding that the longtime tech leaders on the council are digging a deeper hole for themselves after their overly ambitious and financially disastrous attempt to create a central software system for the courts.
     The swift reaction was prompted by a lengthy tech plan presented by Technology Committee chair James Herman who lamented the lack of funding for technology. Judge Herman's committee was previously called the CCMS Internal Committee, in charge of the Court Case Management System, a software project scrapped after wasting $500 million in public funds.
     "If we hope to extricate ourselves from the hole we dug with CCMS we ought to first stop digging in the same spot," said Judge Andy Banks of Orange County, a long-time critic of spending by the San Francisco-based bureaucracy the sits atop the state courts.
     A San Diego judge said there is a crisis of confidence in the council's ability to spend public money wisely. "We are not trusted by the governor, the Legislature and the public to use public funds in a prudent fashion," said Judge Tony Maino.
     At the council meeting, Herman presented a 283-page plan for technology in the courts that called for electronic filing, video appearances for traffic matters, self service for paying traffic tickets and online data access to docket information, a capability that already exists for big California courts.
     In keeping with past pronouncements on technology, including those promoting the CCMS system, the document was long on what judicial critics call "techno-babble."
     "The judicial branch will maximize the potential efficiency of its technology resources by fully supporting existing and future required infrastructure and assets, and leveraging branch wide information technology resources through procurement, collaboration, communication and education," said the report.
     But what Herman's committee did make clear was that it should govern technology development. "We should work together as an IT community with appropriate governance and oversight by the Judicial Council and the Technology Committee," said the report.
     The technology commitee and its staff have been sidelined from technology contracts by a group made up largely of trial court IT staff who decided on the three top software bidders, which the trial courts built on by negotiating their own, multi-million-dollar software deals, mostly with Tyler Technologies. The roadmap unveiled at Monday's council meeting appears to reestablish the council and its tech committee as the overseers of technology for the courts, a gambit that drew fierce criticism.
     Maino in San Diego called the roadmap "old wine in a new mislabeled bottle."
     "CCMS was a $500 million fiasco," he added. "It was a top-down program. One of the most vocal supported of CCMS and it top-down strategy was Judge Herman."
     "I think this is another illustration of why new ideas and not just old ideas in disguise need to be presented to the Judicial Council," Maino added. "This can only happen if new and innovative people are on both the Judicial Council and the various committees that feed information to the Judicial Council.
     Maino is part of the Alliance of California Judges, with a membership of 500 judges, trying to reform the council and its bureaucracy. Most of the council and most committee members are appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. The Alliance is pushing for a more democratic system where judges decide on council members through a ballot.
     In his comments at the council meeting, Herman said the roadmap should restore the council's credibility with the Legislature and the governor.
     "How do we develop a funding stream for technology? The way we do that is through outreach to our sister branches," Herman said. "We have to pursue a course that can convince the other two branches that technology is a necessary efficiency."
     But Judge Banks was not convinced that the governor, or the Legislature, would be enamored with more spending on technology by the council and its staff.
     "The idea of resurrecting an IT bureaucracy in San Francisco within the entity formerly known as the Administrative Office of the Courts would probably not be well received by the governor or the Legislature," he said. "I think that the Governor expects the branch to become more efficient by severely downsizing and eliminating pre-existing failed bureaucratic segments of our judicial branch."
     Trial judges have for years been campaigning for reduction of the bloated council staff that still numbers nearly 800 workers, based on the last count.
     A related agenda item at Friday's council meeting offered more fodder for critics in reporting that consultants in technology and information were paid $156 million in fiscal year 2012-2013, during the heart of an ongoing fiscal crisis for the California courts that resulted in layoffs for hundreds of workers in the trial courts.
     The ongoing consulting cost is particularly noteworthy because much of the money spent on the failed CCMS venture went to Deloitte Consulting, a massive outflow of public funds that caused intense criticism from legislators as well as individual judges.
     Justice Richard Huffman, head of the council's committee on accountability and efficiency, recommended that the council reconsider its spending on technology consultants.
     "We're not suggesting anything be done with it other than it's an issue that is important," said Huffman. "All we're suggesting is from a policy perspective over time you should be concerned with instances where you have a consultant working as a consultant for the council 10, 12, 15 years. The normal view is they should be employees. Generally probably cheaper."
     "So we simply raise it," he concluded, "in our responsibility as being, I suppose, the appointed nitpickers for the Judicial Council."
     The council did not vote on the recommendation, but agreed to follow up.
     In additional business, the council also heard a report from Commissioner Sue Alexander whose recent visit to the rural courts in Amador and Glenn county revealed staff shortages, boxes of uncompleted work and failing technology.
     "The staff is very dedicated but morale is low, not only because the workload but they don't see a light at the end of the tunnel but also because the staff is doing this with less take-home pay," Alexander said of the Amador court. "Amador has hit the proverbial wall and seems to see no relief in the future. They needed a loan to make payroll."
     She said that with drastic staff cuts, the court is about a year behind in its work.
     "There are boxes of files that have work to be completed. This includes completing minutes, doing filing and responding to document requests. The estimate is they are about a year behind in all non-crucial matters. The staff I spoke to has been there for up to 20 years and has never seen it this bad."
     Justice Harry Hull described the report as a "parade of horribles." Others blamed the media.
     "Unfortunately, what we've just discussed amongst ourselves is not very sexy. It's not very exciting. It's depressing and it's sad. And it's not the by line or the headline that unfortunately, we've been reading about," Judge Mary Ann O'Malley of Contra Costa said. "They'd rather print about small, little clips and controversies within the branch rather than the real needs of the branch. They'd rather discuss some little fight that's going on between some entities. And so I can only hope that those in the press see the real dire, real-life stories that are presented here. And if you want a story, that's a story."
     Last year, the council dismissed objections from the media and unanimously enacted new efiling rules designed with a large amount of input from the Technlogy Committee. The L.A. Times, San Francisco newspapers and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, representing most newspapers in the state, objected to provisions that said the public record does not become public until it is processed by court officials, representing an open-ended delay that in courts like Amador and others can extend to months.
     "They always blame someone, don't they?" commented Judge Maino in San Diego. "Now it is the media that has let them down."