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After Singing Praise of CCMS Deal|Court Leaders Beat Hasty Retreat

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) After calling him a "white knight" and an "angel in the wings," California's court leaders on Thursday abruptly halted talks with pharmaceutical mogul Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong on a deal that was supposed to help a beleaguered and extraordinarily expensive IT project.

Former state senator Joseph Dunn, who had a key role in setting up the deal, suggested Soon-Shiong sought access to source code for the project called the Court Case Management System, a computer system that has already cost California more than a half-billion dollars and is used in just a few courts.

"It was agreed long ago that the judicial branch would maintain exclusive ownership of CCMS as well as continue to maintain control of the source code, security and access to data pursuant to policies established by the branch," said Dunn, who arranged for a meeting between Soon-Shiong and the Bill Vickrey, the former director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Control of the code remains a subject of doubt among the state's trial judges, with some saying the system's developer Deloitte Consulting actually controls the code.

The overall adequacy of the code is also a subject of doubt, as is the question of who walked away from the table in the Soon-Shiong deal.

"Unfortunately, other aspects of the system are much more complex than we initially understood and will require much more sustainable resources outside of philanthropy," said Soon-Shiong in Thursday's statement. That could be interpreted to mean the IT system needs much more work to operate correctly.

Judges in the reform-oriented Alliance of California Judges have steadily criticized the IT project as a massive boondoggle. On Thursday, they blasted away at the spending decisions of court leaders.

"This aborted public/private venture underscores the need for greater scrutiny of how our branch leaders are making decisions about our limited public resources," said the Alliance in its statement. "Continuing to fund the discredited CCMS at the expense of fully functioning local trial courts should not be allowed to continue."

As originally proposed in October, the deal was supposed to be worth $20 million but the in-kind and cash components of the deal were never revealed. A big part of the proposal was to have the data from the IT project hosted on the National Lambda Rail, a high-speed information network owned by a Soon-Shiong charity.

At the time, Justice Terence Bruiniers, who consistently defends the big IT project, called the deal "literally a game-changer." Plumas County Judge Ira Kaufman called Soon-Shiong "an angel in the wings." Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County called him a "white knight."

The Judicial Council, which has been often criticized for accepting proposals by the nearly 1,000-strong bureaucracy of the courts, voted unanimously in favor of going forward with a "due diligence" review of Soon-Shiong's offer to support the IT project. Two Los Angeles judges on the Judicial Council were the lone abstentions.

From the outset, however, the deal was attacked by the Alliance.

"Those in control are casting about in a frantic attempt to save this failed project, rather than simply cutting the taxpayer's losses," said Chuck Horan, a retired Los Angeles judge, after the offer was announced. "The project seems to be imploding."

The IT project, which has drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget for California courts, is often reviled by trial judges whose courts have borne the brunt of legislative budget cuts. At a conference of California judges in Long Beach this summer, they were grabbing t-shirts made by a Los Angeles judge that depicted the Titanic sinking into the Atlantic with the words CCMS emblazoned over the image.

The Soon-Shiong deal was an effort by the bureaucrats and judges who lead the courts to save that system, which has also come under heavy fire in California's Legislature.

In an event that foretold its end, the deal hit a road block last month when state Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) said she was "skeptical," indicating she would not support it. AOC official Christine Patton then reported at the Judicial Council's earlier this month that talks with Soon-Shiong were tied up in legal and ethical issues, after a council session outside the public eye.

In their statement Thursday, the Alliance judges said they were pleased that the AOC and Judicial Council "have abandoned the misguided effort to fund with private dollars the troubled California Case Management System."

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