Coup de Grace

     The capacity for wonder seems to be the forte of children.
     So maybe I am going backwards when I see this confrontation between California’s trial judges, on one side, and the central administration of the courts, on the other, in the full technicolor of wonderment.
     The court’s central policy making body, the Judicial Council, is comprised of members picked by the chief justice of the state. They decide most matters in discussions that are closed to the public and the press. Those decisions are then adopted by unanimous vote in open session.
     A notable exception was the discussion of Los Angeles’ request to transfer building and computer funds in order to keep trial courts open. But that discussion, which provided good stuff for a news story, was the exception.
     The quiet, behind-closed-doors way of operating is common for judges who are generally averse to public statements on matters of controversy. And so it was that the Judicial Council decided to send a letter ordering the presiding judge of the trial courts in Sacramento not to pull the plug on a centralized computer system for court records.
     Sacramento, after experiencing slow-downs and lost data in the grandiose record system designed by private consultants, had decided to cut the connection to the central system’s server in Arizona. Leaders of the Sacramento court said last month they would be switching over to a local server.
     In other years, the letter from the Judicial Council countermanding that decision would not have been necessary, and, if it had, would have stayed quiet, and, once received, would have been followed.
     But these are remarkable times.
     The Sacramento presiding judge, Steven White, refused to back down. “I will not be held hostage to this policy,” he said in an article written by Courthouse News reporter Maria Dinzeo.
     One interesting tidbit in this story is that the letter from the Judicial Council had not been received by White when it was already in the hands of a reporter for the Recorder newspaper, which broke the story. Although the events are murky and the politics just as opaque, that sequence of events would suggest that the letter was leaked from inside the council.
     To illustrate how unusual all of this is, it has been pretty much impossible, in my years, nay decades, as a journalist, to get a presiding judge to go on the record on any matter of public controversy. There was no point in trying.
     So now, hearing a chorus of judges publicly criticize the agency that controls the purse strings and that is dominated by the state’s most powerful judge — that is amazing stuff.
     And only in reading Dinzeo’s article did I realize that a total of 240 judges make up the rebel group that is actively and openly campaigning against the Judicial Council’s policies. That is an awful lot of articulate, successful, former lawyers who are saying, in essence, we’re not going to take it anymore.
     Their open and critical stand is largely prompted by the centralized computer system, called the Court Case Management System, paid for in multimillion-dollar dollops. It is projected to cost $1.3 billion simply to be completed and cost millions every year afterwards for maintenance.
     But, as White put it simply and honestly, “We’ve had no end of grief with CCMS.”
     Smaller counties remain tied into the system, but Sacramento was the last big county to be physically hooked into the central server. Other big counties are using parts of the software, but they are adapting it individually and using their own servers.
     I know from running this news service, which has built a central data system fed by individual reporters in the field, that if you let people opt out of the system, the system becomes unmanageable.
     I also know that building a simple data system with fields that a person types information into, all of which is then uploaded into a central database, should not cost a billion dollars. That is the tragic side of this story – that, in my opinion, an enormous amount of public money has been wasted.
     But since the time I learned from our reporting that counties were making their own changes to the centralized computer system and then running with local servers, I have been convinced that the centralized system was a big stack of programming and money tottering on the brink of failure.
     It may be that by pulling the plug on the Arizona server, Sacramento has sent the big system crashing down.

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