SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The recent demonstration of a thought-to-be-terminated court IT system has brought fear that it is rising from its grave.
California’s top body of judges had voted to “terminate” the half-billion-dollar adventure in programming three months ago, but the Judicial Council also dedicated $8 million to see if any part of the Court Case Management System could be salvaged.
This week, Senate democrats tried to drive a stake into the system, by voting to cut off almost all those salvage funds.
The fear that the project is being resurrected was likely prompted by a recent email from central court administrators describing the IT project as merely in “suspension.”
The same email said the project that has feasted off public money is currently in “maintenance mode,” and went on to offer a demonstration of the latest version of the system, V-4, to any court that might be interested.
“What I want to make clear is this is not about deploying CCMS V4,” said Judge James Herman of Santa Barbara who is also a council member. “It’s about, are there any parts or components that can be transferred to the trial courts.”
A total of 84 people attended an online functional demonstration of the system last Friday, said Herman. Most of them were court administrators, but some were judges. “The demonstrations were initiated at the request of trial courts,” he added, “looking at what V4 had to offer.”
When the council voted in March to finish off the 10-year project, trial judges commented on the ability of CCMS to regenerate itself and return to draining the trial court trust fund, the lifeblood of the local courts.
“Some people say it’s like a vampire that isn’t really dead until you drag its body out into the sunlight,” said Orange County Judge Andrew Banks at the time.
“If the past is a guide to the future, and I believe it is, the AOC will use the $8 million not to simply obtain the artifacts and code, but to try to once again breathe life into this Frankenstein monster of a system,” predicted retired Judge Charles Horan, also at the time.
In deciding to terminate the project at that March meeting, the council had a choice between voting to “suspend” it or “terminate” it. An overwhelming majority voted to terminate it.
So the recent email from central administrators describing the IT project as merely “suspended” suggested that the Administrative Office of the Courts was not listening to the council.
“The Council was given the option to suspend CCMS, but they voted to terminate the program,” said the Alliance of California Judges. “A decision of the Council is meaningless if AOC staff are free to treat it as advisory only.”
The issue is a sensitive one because of a similar series of events last summer when the council in July ordered a “pause” in the IT project for one year.
That order was promptly ignored by the administrative office which continued to spend more than $200,000 a day on the project, based on the administrators’ own budget estimates. “We’re now relabeling it,” administrator Mark Moore explained at the August council meeting. “It’s not necessarily a one-year pause.”
The Senate budget committee’s decision this week to cut most of the salvage money is an effort to make sure the project is really dead.
The committee voted 9-6 to “eliminate $7 million in CCMS system evaluation funding,” with the wording dictated over the phone by a Senate staffer. That means that most of the $8.7 million voted by the council for a CCMS salvage effort is being taken away.
While a majority of Democrats on the committee supported the proposal, Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), went against them, withdrawing her support when she realized the Judicial Council opposed the measure. She joined four Republican legislators in voting “no.”
As chair of the Senate’s judiciary committee, Evans also holds a non-voting seat on the council.
“It’s not a surprise,” said Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, reacting to the budget committee vote. “It’s an easy target. CCMS is like shooting fish in a barrel.”
“I personally thought it was a project we had to put the brakes on and the council did, basically said ‘we’re done.’ All the council wants to do is salvage what had been developed, and what they could use.”
Herman from Santa Barbara would not comment on the budget committee’s vote to cut the salvage money.
“The project is over, but this is not a laptop you can just turn off,” he said. “You have to decommission the servers. There’s a staff cost to that.”
He urged against any interpretation saying the IT project is being resurrected — “This is not about the Phoenix rising out of the ashes of CCMS.”
Rosenberg also preferred not to comment directly on the budget committee’s vote until he sees the final language of the resolution.
“Is it a big step into the realm of the Judicial Council? It is. There’s always a fine line between legislative authority and judicial branch authority,” he said. “But we’re seeing this year in stark color that the legislature and the governor absolutely control the purse strings of the judicial branch. This is arguably within their authority.”
Rosenberg said the mistake the judiciary made on the IT project was deciding to develop a completely new system. “Competition is good,” he said. “There are at least three or four off the shelf products that will do just fine.”