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Committee Votes to Halt Court IT Project

SACRAMENTO (CN) - A California Assembly committee voted unanimously Wednesday to suspend a costly and controversial statewide IT project for California's courts after the state Auditor revealed serious concerns about the project's future.

"Basically, using the parent language, we're taking a little time out here," said Assembly member Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), chair of the budget sub-committee on public safety.

Presiding judges from trial courts around California also sent a letter to the chief justice Wednesday, urging the leader of the courts to stop spending any more money on the IT system and send that money instead to struggling local courts that are laying off staff and closing courtrooms.

The committee vote came after state Auditor Elaine Howle presented a report revealing that the court bureaucracy in charge of the project had not fully implemented the recommendations made by her office a year ago, failing to give rigorous oversight to the project and the huge sums it is costing.

"The project is a good example of how not to develop an IT project," remarked Assembly member Joan Buchanan (D-Contra Costa).

The committee's vote may be the end of the line for an enormous and often loathed project, caricatured as a sinking Titanic and variously called "misbegotten," a "boondoggle" and a "fiasco."

The central court bureaucracy that has ballooned in size and in consumption of public funds, as a result of legislation 15 years ago, has been been pummeled by legislators and trial judges over the ambitious project that has already cost a half-billion dollars and is budgeted to cost another quarter-billion in the next couple years.

The Court Case Management System was intended to unify information from all 58 county trial courts in California. But a blistering report by the state Auditor last year revealed poor management by the bureaucrats, cost overruns, and no financial analysis of the project prior to its auspicious inception in 2003.

The auditor's report also found that many courts did not want the system, and the Administrative Office of the Courts had failed to report the true cost of the project to the Legislature.

At Wednesday's hearing, the state auditor said the administrative office had taken steps to meet her recommendations, but those efforts fell short.

"Although we're beyond the one year date, many have not been fully implemented," Auditor Howle told the Assembly committee. "There's a considerable amount of uncertainty regarding the cost of deploying the system and whether or not they really have addressed the concerns we have. We have a lot of outstanding issues."

The auditor's technology expert, Payson Hall, testified that while the administrative office had hired a vendor to confirm that the system worked, "The caution is it might be challenging to maintain. Have you ever made a hideous excel spreadsheet and not left breadcrumbs to let you know what you did? Imagine doing that with 6 million lines of code," he told the legislators.

Recently the administrative office announced its intention to install the final version of the software, CCMS V4, in ten California trial courts. A feasibility study is to be unveiled later this month before the Judicial Council headed by the Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.


However, Wednesday's vote urging "a time out" leaves little room for interpretation concerning the Legislature's wishes.

The motion to suspend the project was made by Assembly member Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the lower house's judiciary committee and is normally a reliable vote in support of positions taken by the court administrative office.

"The final action of the Legislature is not before us today. It's a committee action," said Feuer. "The motion is that CCMS be suspended, except for the seven counties in which CCMS is currently operating, pending further legislative action."

Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) criticized the administrative office for a slow pace of reform. "I was disturbed to hear that in some areas there hasn't been progress where there should have been a lot more made in the last year," he said, noting a particular concern about a limited warranty from Deloitte Consulting, the system's builder.

"A year later, there could have been a decision made by now," he added. "Why haven't they come to agreement to address that very serious problem which is only making the project more expensive? The AOC needs to do a much better job reporting back to the Legislature all the necessary steps it's taken to address the concerns of the state auditor."

Judge James Herman of Santa Barbara testified that the Judicial Council will be voting on a number of options at a meeting on March 27th, one of which is suspending the project. But, Herman testified, maintaining the status quo would also be expensive.

"It's not a laptop computer that you can just shut down," he told the legislators.

The committee's vote should not affect the handful of courts that are using early versions of the CCMS software. The system shuts down occasionally and has problems that require continuing work by programmers. Those courts would be left in the lurch if no funds could be used for fixes.

Buchanan, the Assembly member from Contra Costa, said some courts have no choice. She pointed to San Joaquin Superior Court, which uses an early version of the controversial software for some departments.

"If they did not have CCMS, they would have no system in place," Buchanan argued.

"I don't think we should go out and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars implementing when we need to keep courts open," she added in reference to the extensive cost of trying to put the huge program into the courts. "But we have to think about courts like the one in San Joaquin County."

That line of argument was contradicted by a court clerk in San Joaquin County Superior Court who attended the hearing.

In an interview afterwards, clerk Monica Jones said legislator Buchanan is mistaken when she says the San Joaquin court has no alternative system.

"I perked up when she said that," Jones commented. She said her job as a "front-line person with CCMS" has given her a great deal of experience on "the problems it poses."

As with many courts, an old system is still in place in San Joaquin Superior.

It still works, said Jones, and the staff thinks it is much better than the software sent down from the administrative office. That old IT system is called Show Me, said Jones, and is used in the court's family law, juvenile dependency and elderly dependency departments.

"That system is still in place," Jones said. "I would like Buchanan to be aware that we do have it. If she could find the time and come over to our family law courthouse, she can see how it functions."

In contrast to that old system, she said, CCMS is sluggish and has done nothing but create more work for the clerks. "The work load has doubled," said Jones. "What would take ten minutes has now tripled to 30 or 40 minutes to open one case. It now takes five to ten minutes just to input one document into CCMS."

That assessment dovetails with statements from judges who have said, in surveys taken over the past year, that the cumbersome data entry requirements of CCMS actually increase labor costs and take a great deal of extra staff time.

In anticipation of Wednesday's hearing, a letter was sent to the chief justice Wednesday morning, signed by presiding judges from nine trial courts of California -- ranging from tiny Trinity in the far north to monsters Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside in the south.

The letter urged the chief justice to stop spending any more money on the IT project and in particular the "finished" version of the software, V4, that is supposed to allow filing of documents through the internet. No court in the state has adopted it and a group of big courts have specifically rejected it.

"It is our firm position that we can no longer support further development or deployment of CCMS V4. If statewide deployment of CCMS V4 was ever an attainable goal, that time has passed as the state's budget crisis has grown and endured," wrote presiding judges from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Riverside, Orange, Kern, Mariposa, Trinity and San Mateo.

"We urge you to vote to immediately cease funding CCMS V4," the letter added, saying that money should instead go to the trial courts.

"Now is the time," said the judges, "to honestly identify those programs that are truly essential to our justice system, to abandon outmoded priorities, and to move forward with a realistic vision of the Judicial Branch in these economic times. Now is the time to stop CCMS V4 and to redirect all funding to the trial courts."

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