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Dark Castle

Our battle to get prompt access to new filings in California courts has for years run into one major opponent.

The central bureaucracy that oversees the courts has consistently fought us on the issue, while the individual trial courts with close ties to those central administrators are consistently providing inferior press access compared to the courts that are more independent, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Those courts providing the lesser access have bought into a new case tracking system called CCMS. But that system with its enormous expense and great shortcomings is only the most obvious symptom of a central agency that is making bad decisions with public money.

A second and more subtle symptom is the nature of the arguments made by the agency, called the Administrative Office of the Courts, in pushing the new system and fending off criticism.

I have run into that second symptom the willingness to make arguments that in my opinion are dishonorable at regular intervals. And now I see the individual trial courts have also run into it.

A good example is the argument by central administrators that Kern County's failure to object to some workshops on the CCMS system meant that Kern had acquiesced to the entire dog-gone boondoggle, one that now carries a price tag of nearly $2 billion.

To most people, that kind of argument would seem so thin that nobody would seriously trot it out and run it around the track. No one would really try to say that because there was a statewide workshop for those interested in a project and you did not object, therefore you agreed to pay for the whole $2 billion deal connected to the workshop.

Who would make such an argument?

"We are aware that the AOC has contended that consent is implied because of statewide forums and workshops and the fact that there has been no objection," said Kern in its reply to the state auditor's questionnaire.

Kern then goes on to flatten the argument, saying that it is contrary to the law, contrary to the judiciary's internal rules, and certainly contrary to Kern's belief that its money is being taken without authority to pay for the new case tracking system.

"The AOC has in part funded CCMS development with funds indirectly obtained from Kern County without consent, by appropriating funds for general development expense that should have been allocated in part to to Kern's trial operations in the trial court budgeting process," said Kern.

We have run into arguments of the same nature in trying to get access to newly filed cases at the end of the day on which they are filed, in other words, while they are still news.

The bureaucrats argue, just as falsely as with Kern, that it would cost enormous wads of money to give the press prompt access to court documents. In fact, there is little or no cost to letting a journalist look a piece of paper which is sitting there waiting, for hours and often days, to be worked on.

They did the same thing last week when inland county Justice Manuel Ramirez asked for no-cost realignment of the appellate districts the AOC representatives argued that it could not be done because of the expense. The justice answered, before the state Senate Judiciary Committee last Tuesday, that their argument was directly contrary to the record on the issue.

Didn't matter. The committee repeated the administrative argument on cost and voted the justice down.

Keep in mind that while using the cost argument as a blunderbuss to shoot down anything they don't like, the bureaucrats are spending $1 million a week on payments to a private contractor for the CCMS system after taking $200 million from trial court funds last fall to pay for just part of it.

There is a third element in this toxic brew. In addition to dissolute spending of public money, in addition to using false arguments to repel critics and prevent reform, there is a special spice that adds zest to the combo.

On our page today, Maria Dinzeo is reporting on the individual answers from a survey taken by the old-line judges association in California, a group not given to shaking things up. The judge members of the association call the judiciary's central administrators "insular," "bloated," and "arrogant."

That is the extra je-ne-sais-quoi in the mix. The attitude.

Those answers to the poll by the California Judges Association come alongside another set of answers gathered by the state auditor in a survey of California's 58 trial courts, asking for their opinion on the CCMS system. At the request of Courthouse News, the state auditor recently released the individual court answers to the survey.

I asked an outside accountant who checks our books to analyze the auditor's survey, and check the numbers.

But the accountant also took a look at the survey's written answers.

"It is astounding to me that the AOC didn't utilize the expertise of the courts themselves as its primary input in the design stage," she said. "After reading through all the surveys, this seems to me to be the most significant of the AOC's many failures. They had a wealth of information, knowledge, and experience right there at their fingertips, but chose to sideline it."

Welcome to the dark castle of the central bureaucrats.

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