SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Despite recent setbacks, judges on the the governing council for California’s courts announced Tuesday they are pushing ahead with plans to install a controversial IT system in ten more local courts.
They said accounting firm Grant Thornton will be asked to prepare a cost-benefit study on installing the IT system in 22 trial courts, with that list culled down to ten based on local interest and need.
California’s courts are currently trying to maintain operations in the shadow of a proposed state budget that may cut their funds further, on top of draconian cutbacks over the last three years. The IT system, called the Court Case Management System, has already cost a half-billion dollars and is projected to cost almost $2 billion in total by the time it’s in place.
A separate source of funding for the IT project was offered by a pharmaceutical mogul last fall, but negotiations over the offer fell apart recently. The offer’s demise was confirmed at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“There were more complications than were anticipated,” Santa Barbara Judge James Herman told the council.
In an interview, Justice Terence Bruiniers said, “If we had outside money and resources for deployment, unquestionably it would have been easier.”
He added that the judiciary’s precarious budget situation has delayed work on the IT system, which is currently only used in a handful of courts. But spending any more money on the project, regardless of the source, does not sit well with many of California’s trial judges.
“As California local courts struggle to keep their doors open, the Judicial Council continues to spend close to a million dollars a week on the mismanaged and publicly maligned CCMS project,” said Sacramento Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a critic of the council’s spending priorities.
“What started out as a $250 million dollar system has morphed into a $1.9 billion dollar fiasco,” she added. “Asking the Governor and the Legislature to spare the courts from further budget cuts while continuing to waste precious resources on CCMS is a wrong headed strategy.”
In an interview last year, Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, from Los Angeles, was highly critical of the money spent on the IT project. “The AOC is insisting on going forward with it while we’re closing courtrooms,” he said.
Calderon is the author of a bill currently pending in the Legislature that would redirect funds now spent on administrative projects towards the trial courts, legislation driven in part by the hundreds of millions spent on the case management system.
Despite the opposition, central administrators for the courts are plowing ahead with installation of CCMS in Fresno and San Luis Obispo County.
For Presiding Judge Barry LaBarbera in San Luis Obispo, the IT system cannot come soon enough. “We currently have no case management system at all,” he said.
“The immediate benefit for our community is 24/7 access to calendaring information and minute orders,” he said. “Parties can access information which can tell them when pleadings are filed by the other side.”
“We expect to go live some time in 2013 in the Fall.” LaBarbera added that his court has had to hire temporary staff to do the jobs of permanent employees who are busy working on CCMS, and he hopes to see cost-savings once the system is installed.
Surveys conducted last year revealed that judges and administrators in courts that have installed the IT system were often critical.
“I have heard nothing but complaints about how awful CCMS is,” one judge said in survey answers from Sacramento. Another judge added, “My clerk and other clerks have said CCMS is a nightmare!”
The survey answer from Orange County, another of the four courts that have adopted the system, sharply criticized the leaders of California’s court system, saying they “manipulate the message to imply that everything is great.”
Referring to the IT system, that author of Orange County’s survey answer warned, “The Administrative Office of the Courts remains singularly focused on a solution that may cripple the judicial branch.”
In his interview Wednesday, Bruiniers was quick to say that there are no current plans to install the IT system beyond Fresno and San Luis Obispo.
“These are things we have to do in any event,” Bruiniers said in reference to the Grant-Thornton study. “Whether now or later it has to be done.”
He said the lack of a cost-benefit analysis was one problem the Bureau of State Auditors identified in a report on CCMS last year. “It was one of the things the BSA criticized before so we want to make sure we have all that information.”
“Grant Thornton is not looking at just cost of deploying there, but beyond what would make sense as the next step — which courts are interested in doing it, where is the most need and where do we get the best return on investment,” he said.
In Sacramento, Gilliard said a group of trial judges critical of the court leadership will oppose any more spending for a project she describes as a “disaster.”
“The Alliance of California Judges opposes any more raids on trial court funds to prop up this disaster,” she said. “We call on our branch leaders to reverse course……. don’t force local Presiding Judges to beg for more money when funds from CCMS are available to keep our courts open and don’t expect the Governor and Legislature to ignore your spending priorities.”
Bruiniers could not list all of the courts participating in Grant Thornton’s cost-benefit analysis, but he said they include Ventura, Orange County and San Diego, courts that already have an interim version of CCMS, as well as newcomers like Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and Alameda, “who have expressed interest in implementing one or more modules.”
Bruiniers said Los Angeles is also on the list.
Los Angeles judges have been among the foremost critics of what they describe as a cumbersome and labor-intensive IT system with an enormous price tag. “Money is getting drained off on projects that everybody but the Administrative Office of the Courts agrees are misguided,” said Los Angeles Robert Dukes in an interview earlier this month.
A reporter’s request on Wednesday for the full list of 22 courts considered in the Grant-Thornton study was handed by the spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts over to the public information office as a public records request, a process that often takes weeks or months. The same procedure was applied to a question about the cost of the Grant-Thornton study.
In his interview, Bruiniers pointed out that the entire judicial branch budget remains uncertain, with a deeper cut of $125 million likely if voters reject Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tax hikes on sales and high-incomes, on the ballot in November.
“We’ve had very little certainty in our budget,” said Bruiniers. “We need to know how much money we have before we can talk about how to allocate it.”