SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's trial judges have launched a highly unusual attack on the leadership of the state court and its problem-plagued $1.3 billion court computer project. One trial judge labeled the project "an absolute scandal" while the courts' administrative authority answered by saying the judges "lack understanding."
The judges portray the $1.3 billion already spent by the Administrative Office of the Courts as an enormous waste of money for a system that is already falling into disuse while continuing to generate multi-million bills from consultants.
"We may not have the technical expertise, but you don't have to be 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 Administrative Office of the Court's effort to connect California's trial courts through an integrated computer system, meant to provide instantaneous communication and judicial access to information throughout the state. The AOC has defended the project by saying it is a work in progress, conceding some glitches and suggesting that the trial judges do not understand the big picture.
, has been called "wasteful government spending at its worst" by the California Alliance of Judges because it is not user-friendly and is prone to frequent crashes and malfunctions.
The administrative office has defended by saying that the system is a work in progress and that
AOC, as the administrative office is referred to"I've listened to the Administrative of the Courts 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."
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.
Problems with CCMS have gotten so bad that it has been abandoned before its completion by Los Angeles Superior court, the biggest trial court in the state, where it is 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."
According to a report issued Friday by the Office of the State Chief Information Officer, the fourth and final version of CCMS will not be ready until at least April 2011, and in addition to its $1.3 billion price tag, will cost an additional $79 million per year to maintain. But the report essentially supported the project, saying that it "can be successfully implemented" if the AOC follows it recommendations of developing a detailed plan for how CCMS will be supported and maintained.
According to the OCIO, "The CCMS project has been challenged to date with scope, schedule and cost definition and control due to incomplete information, early lack of adherence to project management processes during the initiation stage, and the size and complexity of the effort."
But it's hard to stop a moving train. "Despite these setbacks and future risks," the report says, "the OCIO believes the project is at a point where there is more reason to move forward than to stop the project."
For Judge Maino, this is "hardly a glowing recommendation." In an e-mail, he said, "Sounds like, 'Hell, we've got $400 million in the pot, go ahead and draw to the inside straight.'"
The AOC has valiantly tried to defend the cost and value of one computer system for all the trial courts in the state. "It is a large sum," said AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa. "It's essentially a work in progress. We knew going in that anytime you start a new system there will be glitches."
When questioned about the numerous malfunctions experienced in Sacramento, so many that the court recently decided to pull the plug on the system's out-of-state server used to process and hold the CCMS data, Carrizosa said Sacramento simply had not followed the protocol for installing CCMS in their court. "It's not a problem with CCMS itself. The basic underpinnings of CCMS are fine. They said, 'no we're going to let our IT folks install it the way they want it.' It's like if the cable company ran their line to your house and you tried to install it yourself."
Carrizosa said he did not want to criticize individual judges, and was quick to say that the final version of CCMS will be much more streamlined and efficient. As for the cost, Carrizosa said "the legislature recognizes the cost involved. A lot of people believe the AOC already has the money, and that it has this pot of money we're sitting on. But the money is going to be appropriated over time by the legislature."
The OCIO also suggested a price cap for the project, but admitted in its report that at this point, "an expense cap for the system is impossible to determine." Judge Maino said that he seemed to him that OCIO's report was "damning with faint praise," quoting the Alexander Pole poem "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot." He noted that the Bureau of State Audits will release an outside report on the system in six months, but felt that "since we've been at this CCMS thing longer than we fought World War I and II together, it shouldn't have so many question marks still attached to it."
Trial judges up and down the state who are surviving on strapped budgets have heaped scorn on the enormously expensive computer project that is already being abandoned by many courts while it continues to generate multi-million consulting bills.
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