(CN) – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released an $85 billion California budget proposal that includes $3.43 billion for the courts, slightly more than requested. The court budget does not address an ongoing controversy over the use of those funds, a discussion that could end up in the Legislature. “We are still dealing with a $20 billion statewide budget shortfall, and there are many competing interests,” said Les Spahnn, legislative budget consultant to Assemblyman Warren Furutani.
“You have the court employees who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, the building trades unions and the trial judges,” added Spahnn whose boss chairs the subcomittee dealing with the court budget. “Everything is in flux and no one has made any decisions.”
The principal budget controversy within the court system is tied to an ambitious computer project that is predicted to cost $1.3 billion when it is completed. A group of trial judges wants that money, as well as funds intended for new court construction, redirected to keep courtrooms open.
On the other side of the issue, some judges have gone to the legislature to sell the new computer system with a video presentation.
Judge Glen Reiser of Ventura County Superior Court, a long time advocate of the centralized computer sytem, met with members of the legislature last month to answer questions about the system called Court Case Management System. Reiser said that after presenting the video to legislators, “I got the impression that they were hugely receptive.”
Countering that position, trial judges in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento argue that the benefits of the centralized computer system are outweighed by its $1.3 billion cost. One judge said the courts could have their own space shuttle for that kind of money.
Reiser answered by saying the new system will ultimately “save the courts tens of millions of dollars.”
“Change is threatening to some people,” Reiser added. “I love my colleagues to death, but the reason some people become judges is because they love tradition. Anytime you introduce new technology, there is going to be some push back. You have to look at the age of the judge and where they are on the technology curve.”
San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston Maino replied, saying it is not the technology he opposes, rather it is the projected cost.
“Judges routinely ask whether the benefits of a certain choice are outweighed by the costs,” he said. “In the case of the case management system, the answer is the very slender benefits do not outweigh the costs. The projected cost of the system is $1.3 billion — an amount that is nearly sufficient for the Administrative Office of the Courts to purchase its own space shuttle.”
A judicial colleague who asked not be named added, “The judges of this state are not afraid of technology that works. Judges, like most people, will embrace any improvement that makes their work more efficient and saves them time, such as web-based legal research, or the Blackberry. However, judges are probably more skeptical than most of a promise that a failed system will get better if we just pour another billion into it.”
“In short,” said the judge adding a bit of bite, “the fault, dear colleague, is not in ourselves, but in the star-crossed technology that was outsourced with no oversight, foisted on our hard-working employees before it was functional, and which drains our money reserves while we close the doors to the public.”
Back in the state capital, budget consultant Spahnn said that the legislators are holding off discussions on the big computer project until debate on the budget scheduled for next month.
The specific expenses for the computer project have not been presented to the legislature, he added. The Judicial Council which sets policy for the courts will try to allocate money for the computer project from various sources within the court budget, including the Trial Court Improvement Fund and the Trial Court Trust Fund.
A representative from the Administrative Office of the Courts said it will be several weeks before the Judicial Council will find out whether the legislature will allow them to draw money from those funds for the computer system.
But as of Friday, said Spahnn, “No one has made a decision on whether the legislature will put restrictions on those funds.”
Asked whether the big CCMS computer project should be put on hold until the judicial branch’s finances are more stable and courthouses can remain open, Reiser said, “It’s a political issue and a business issue. It is not prudent to put the project on hold. But it is important to keep the courts open. How to meld the two together, that’s for the politicians to decide.”