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Battle Between California Judges and Leadership on Massive Project

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's trial judges have launched an unusual attack on the leadership of the state court and its troubled $1.3 billion court computer project. One trial judge labeled the project "an absolute scandal," while the courts' administrative authority suggested that the judges "lack understanding."

The judges portray the $1.3 billion already spent by the Administrative Office of the Courts as a waste of money for a computer system that already is falling into disuse while generating multimillion-dollar bills from private consultants.

"We may not have the technical expertise, but you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing," said San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston Maino. "We know that it shouldn't cost this much because we've been talking to people who are experts and no one has said anything that comes close to this much."

The project by the Administrative Office of the Court is an effort to connect California's trial courts through an integrated computer system while providing instantaneous communication and judicial access to information throughout the state. The AOC has defended the project by saying it is a work in progress, but conceded to some glitches and suggested that the trial judges do not understand the big picture.

"I've listened to the AOC for 22 years and if you don't agree with them, you're misinformed and on the fringe," said Judge Charles Horan of Los Angeles. "It's their standard response."

The AOC is the administrative arm of the California Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the nation's biggest court system. The judicial council is run by Chief Justice Ronald George of the California Supreme Court.

In his State of the Judiciary address to the California Legislature in February, George defended the new computer system along with a court construction program, saying they are "as vital a part of California's infrastructure as our bridges and highways and fundamental to administering justice."

On the other side of the issue, a group of judges have formed to challenge the administrative office already criticized as remote and unresponsive. Called the California Alliance of Judges, the group has cast the vast data project as "wasteful government spending at its worst."

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster, a member of the alliance, called the Court Computer Management System "idiotic" and "counter-intuitive," saying his clerks have to take four or five extra steps to enter data that they didn't have to before CCMS was implemented.

"Another thing that's so stupid is that it isn't compatible with Microsoft Word," McMaster said, noting that because of this incompatibility, clerks are forced to go through and fix pages and pages of garbled text.

In response to an earlier Courthouse News article where a judge compared the new computer system to a Ferrari in terms of cost, a research attorney sent an email suggesting the system was more appropriately compared to the Eastern European "Yugo," and provided a link to an image of the car.

In Los Angeles Superior court, the biggest trial court in the state, problems with the new computer system have gotten so bad that it has been abandoned before its completion and is now used in only one court for small claims cases.

"It's an absolute scandal. We've spent millions on it and we don't use it anymore," said Judge Horan. "In my 22 years on the bench, I've never needed to contact another trial judge in another county about a case."

Horan said the AOC's attempt to sell the project as something needed by judges is "a bunch of malarkey. It's so beyond what judges need to do their jobs and it costs more money than Oprah has. If we can't do it for less than whatever the ever-changing landscape of numbers from the AOC is, then we need to pack up and get out of town because it's a rip-off of the taxpayers."

But it's hard to stop a moving train.

According to a report issued Friday by the California's head of information technology, the final version of the computer system will not be ready until at least April 2011. In addition to its $1.3 billion price tag, the new computer system will cost an additional $79 million as year to maintain, according to the report.

But the report essentially gave the CCMS computer system a pass, saying the project "can be successfully implemented."

"Despite these setbacks and future risks," says the report from the office of Teri Takai, California's head technology officer, "the project is at a point where there is more reason to move forward than to stop the project."

Judge Maino quoted from Alexander Pope's poem "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," in saying the state technology officer's report is "damning with faint praise."

The report's conclusion is "hardly a glowing recommendation," he said. In an e-mail, Maino added, "Sounds like, 'Hell, we've got $400 million in the pot, go ahead and draw to the inside straight.'"

AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa acknowledged that the $1.3 billion "is a large sum."

Defending against the criticism from judges, he said, "I think there is a lack of understanding of what it costs to develop a fully integrated statewide system. The legislature recognizes the cost involved."

Those costs, however, remain in flux.

The report from Takai's state technology office said, "An expense cap for the system is impossible to determine."

The Bureau of State Audits is now looking into the price tag for the system and is expected to issue a report in six months that is expected to provide a more rigorous review of the project.

"Since we've been at this CCMS thing longer than we fought World War I and II together," said Maino, "it shouldn't have so many question marks still attached to it."

This article is part of a series on the court computer project. The next article will look at the project from a technical standpoint.

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