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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

A Tight Spot

We met Presiding Judge Terence Bruiniers a long time ago in the small town of Martinez, in Contra Costa County.

I had gone up there with our lawyer and our editor on special projects to talk about Lexis gaining an advantage in the publishing game by handling the court's efiled cases, by acting in essence as the court's gatekeeper.

The judge met us briefly and said he had to take care of a matter first. It was a hearing involving a vociferous pro per who was losing a piece of property, as best I remember.

The guy was pretty crazy. I saw the judge looking our way in the front row and I remember leaning over to the young special projects editor, Adam Angione, and whispering that he needed to make sure and keep a straight face.

The pro per litigant lost but Bruiniers treated him with both firmness and dignity.

Afterwards we went back to the judge's chambers and he gave us a real fair hearing, asked good questions and heard us out. I wanted to see the contract between the court and Lexis and he told us that a term of the contract said it was a trade secret, or words to that effect.

I questioned how a contract between a public court and a private publisher could be secret. He held up his hands on either side of him in a gesture that I interpreted to mean that I had a point but his power was limited.

After 45 minutes or so, we wound up the meeting and the judge urged us to stay in touch and call anytime we had questions. The bailiff gave us his phone number. I was pumped up simply because we had been heard.

As usual, I started talking about how well the meeting went as soon as we were in the big open area outside the presiding judge's courtroom. It was well into the afternoon, gray and quiet in the old, stately courthouse which, like many in California, is filled with marble and polished wood. My voice was loud.

As usual, our lawyer, Rachel Matteo-Boehm with Holme Roberts & Owen, urged me to basically shut up until we got outside.

That afternoon came back to mind last week when I wrote a story for our webpage titled "AOC by the Numbers." The piece started out by describing an email distributed by Bruiniers, who is now on the Court of Appeal.

As the co-chair of a statewide judiciary committee on technology, he has taken the role of defending the Administrative Office of the Courts on an IT project that is in trouble. Bruiniers attached to his email cost reports sent by the AOC to the state legislature, concerning the IT project.

While the rows of numbers seemed impressive to the uninitiated, they were anything but to a public accountant.

Karen Covel with the San Diego accounting firm of Lauer Georgatos and Covel does work for Courthouse News and I asked her to analyze the reports.

The simplest of matters, making sure your numbers add up, had not been accomplished by the AOC, resulting in one report giving a total that was $145 million shy of what it should have been.

A basic task before an accountant submits a report is to have someone in the firm who has had no contact with the numbers add them up down and across to make sure the totals are right, a process called "footing" and "crossfooting."

"They didn't do the cross-footing," said Covel.

More importantly, the administrators consistently understated the costs of the IT project, by a total of $54 million over three years. But the third affront to sound fiscal planning is the greatest. It is the big wad, the insult to all of us who support the public fisc a projected $990-million bill to install the darn system after the bureaucrats spent hundreds of millions to pay for its development in the first place.

As Covel pointed out, even that the adjectives just start to sputter uselessly, exorbitant, extraordinary, prodigious, bloated sum is in extreme doubt because a footnote in the AOC report says the private consultant building the IT system is not bound by the figure, meaning it could either cost a big old enormous wad of cash more or the consultant could charge the same and only install it part way, in just a few of the state's trial courts.

"God, these guys are not very good budgeters," said the accountant in what many, including me, would consider a profound understatement.

As I was writing that story last week, I kept coming back to Bruiniers and how reasonable he had been with us back in Martinez. How did he get in this spot, I was asking myself, being the main front man for this crew that can't count.

Because my prediction is that that place is going to get increasingly lonely with the director of the AOC heading for the door, as we also reported last week.

That $990 million cost, with the money coming from trial court trust funds, as the earlier hundreds of millions did, is untenable.

I don't see how even the most wild-eyed bureaucrat is going to make that deal let alone one that is worse.

And where does that leave the big IT project, to limp along in the four courts where it is installed, to be investigated as a world-class boondoggle or simply to be slowly walked away from? And where does that in turn leave one of its principal defenders who in my direct experience has been an eminently fair and reasonable judge?

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