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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Finished’ Court IT Project to Cost State 100s of Millions for Years

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The current claim from court bureaucrats that a big IT project is "finished" runs counter to budget documents showing plans to spend $242,000 on the project every single day from now through mid-2014.

A memo entitled "Fact Check" was sent by the Administrative Office of the Courts to reporters and legislators earlier this month, saying the IT system called the Court Case Management System is completed.

"CCMS is finished and works," said the fact check.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye referred to the same memo two weeks ago in telling her audience of about 100 judges and court executives that they had the facts in their hands showing "no direction being taken on CCMS in 2011, except to confirm that it works."

But a set of budget figures, prepared last summer by the same central court bureaucracy, shows that the "finished" endeavor is expected to continue generating extraordinary expense for California's public purse, and will do so for years to come.

Those budget numbers show the administrators expect to spend $91 million on the IT system in fiscal year 2011-2012. The number rises slightly the following fiscal year to $92 million and tapers off a bit to $87 million in 2013-2014.

An accountant broke those numbers down to daily averages for each budget year. The overall daily average comes to $242,500 per day, including weekends and holidays, from now until June 2014.

"It doesn't look like they intend to let go of the monster they've created," said Karen Covel, a partner with Lauer Georgatos & Covel in San Diego. Covel provides accounting services to Courthouse News Service and was asked to prepare an analysis of budget figures for the IT project, called the Court Case Management System.

"It is astounding that they would keep pouring money into CCMS given the cutbacks," Covel added. "And if prior history is any indication, their cost figures are probably vastly understated."

The attempt by the administrators to defend the IT project is bound up with the State Assembly's passage of AB 1208, a bill that would sharply curtail the ability of bureaucrats to spend such enormous sums of public money. The bill faces an uncertain future in the state Senate where the administrators are mounting a fierce lobbying campaign to keep their prerogatives of power and money.

The Hold That Never Was

     The same bureaucrats presented their plans to spend another $265 million on the problem-plagued IT project in July 2011.

The numbers were given to a governing council of judges in the alternative, with higher numbers for continued development and deployment of the IT system and lower numbers if the project was put on hold. The Judicial Council then voted to put the project on hold.

That vote, however, had no effect on the bureaucracy or the project.


At the very next council meeting, one month later, the bureaucrats told the council judges that the project was in fact going ahead. "It was originally referred to as the one-year pause," said the project director at the time, Mark Moore. "We're now relabeling it. It's not necessarily a one-year pause."

This means the first alternative budget is in effect, the one with no pause, the one that totals $265,600,000 from June 2011 to June 2014.

Those budget numbers can be put together with a recent announcement of plans by the administrators to insert CCMS into 10 more trial courts. Together, they point to the conclusion that the bureaucracy is going full-steam ahead on the project.

All in all, the system is projected to cost a total of $1.9 billion, a figure now widely considered an under-estimate.

By way of contrast, Seattle's trial courts spent $4.7 million to complete and install a new IT system a little over a year ago.

Context of Lay-Offs

     With respect to the wisdom of California's expenditures, judges and programmers familiar with the software remain deeply skeptical.

"It's my personal view as a judge who does not use or need CCMS in my courtroom is that it has been an enormous expenditure of money that warrants every bit of criticism that the State Auditor used in describing the project," said Orange County Judge Andy Banks in an inteview on Wednesday.

Banks is referring to a blistering rebuke delivered by the State Auditor a year ago, saying the administrative office had significantly understated the full cost of the system in statements to the Legislature.

"In addition to planning inadequately for the state case management project, the AOC has consistently failed to develop accurate cost estimates," said the Auditor.

The AOC's reputation for difficulty in making accurate financial statements continues with its current "fact check." It says the IT project was developed "at a cost of $315.5 million."

A report by the reform-oriented group called the Alliance of California Judges documents a much higher figure of $546 million spent on the project up through last summer.

The idea of spending a further $265 million on the project by 2014 falls in a context where the Legislature's budget allotment for California's courts has been cut severely two years in a row.

During the upcoming years that money is budgeted to pour into the IT project, Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest trial court in the nation, expects to lay off 1,000 workers.

E-filing and Efficiency

     In addition to the issue of cost, there is a second, technical aspect to the claim that the IT project is "finished."

The ultimate technical objective of the project is to allow lawyers to email documents to the court rather than deliver paper documents by hand. The administrators say the latest version of CCMS software, called V-4, has achieved that final objective.


However, V-4 has not been adopted by any of the four main courts using CCMS. They are all sticking with the earlier version, called V-3, that does not allow e-filing.

For example, in San Diego, a court that has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of central administration policies, groups of its staff were being trained last year so they could work with V-4. But the training suddenly stopped and last fall the court put a contract out for bid based on the old system.

That bid request specifically called for a private vendor to provide the e-filing functionality. When that contract was announced, a vendor said, "V-4 is dead."

The same is true in Orange County. The court leaders have adapted the V-3 software with their own crew of programmers and they are using two private vendors to provide e-filing.

Beyond the assertion that CCMS is "finished" and the disputed price tag, the AOC's recent fact sheet also makes two additional factual claims. It says the IT system "took nine years to refine and develop" and it now "works."

Just about everybody agrees the system has been nine years in development. But that is not considered a good thing by technicians.

"The life expectancy of a case management system is about 10 years," said a technical officer in Orange County, as part of a survey last year. "Over that period of time, the underlying technology stack changes so dramatically that you have to change (lest you be saddled with a mainframe-based Cobol system equivalent in the future)."

The additional claim that the IT system "works" is heavily qualified by those who use the software. In order to make it work somewhat smoothly, a big technical staff is required, a great deal of additional programming is needed, and the system has to be housed on a local server.

Orange County, for example, has extensively customized the software. With a vast IT staff and its own server, the court does not experience the shutdowns seen in other courts that use the software, said Judge Banks.

"What we have developed is much better than what the AOC developed in CCMS," said Banks in this week's interview. "We saw our IT professionals figure out solutions and work-arounds to the problems and inadequacies of CCMS."

Banks noted that his court is required to employ roughly one technical person per judge in order to keep the IT system running smoothly. The court has 100-110 technical staff, he said, and 117 judges.

Ongoing Problems

     Despite that technical investment, the Orange County system still has problems.

Earlier this month, the public and press lost the ability to view documents on public kiosks for two days. The kiosks are the only way to see the documents. The problem was tied to the system that sets the document fee to the public, according to the staff.

Last Friday, the system broke down in Sacramento, another CCMS court. The lobby became filled with loud and disgruntled people frustrated in their effort to get information from the court or file new documents.

A court staff member then came out into the lobby and announced in a loud voice that the problem did not lie within the court's control. "The problem is with the data center in Arizona," said the official, referring to the out-of-state control center for the system, which is a separate bone of contention.

Another big question that looms over the claim that the IT system "works" is the matter of its efficiency.

For example, most e-filing systems save staff time by allowing court workers to quickly approve information filled in by attorneys filing documents online.

In Orange County, however, the staff must take time to go through a series of additional screens, even with e-filed documents, in order to OK the document.

In San Diego, the staff has said the system takes a great deal more staff time than older and simpler case management systems. In Sacramento, the other big CCMS court, a judge said in a survey last year, "It takes my clerk twice as long to enter data into CCMS compared to our court's locally-developed program."

"CCMS has resulted in the need for 38 percent more staff in Sacramento Superior Court's civil operational arena," said a survey answer from Sacramento, "primarily as a result of additional data entry tasks that did not exist in the previous case management processes."


     Overall, out of the four central claims made in the administrative office's "fact check," only the statement that CCMS has been in development for nine years is not contested. The claim that it "works" would be qualified by those who use the program to say that it requires extensive additional staff time from data entry clerks and from a large technical staff.

The third claim that it only costs $315 million is sharply contested with a rival, documented summary that says $546 million dollars have in fact been spent on the IT project. The fourth and foremost claim that the system is "finished" runs counter to budget documents showing another $265 million is expected to be spent on the system in the course of this fiscal year and the next two.

Nevertheless, the administrative office presses ahead with the project.

That relentless push goes against repeated warning from those working with the software and from those watching out for public money.

"Our IT expert believes there is significant risk that the technology used for CCMS could be outdated shortly after its full deployment in 2016-2017," the state Auditor cautioned.

"CCMS, a perfect example of what is wrong with the AOC, has been expanded exponentially with inadequate planning, all of which has led to huge cost overruns," said an Orange County judge. "By any business metric, CCMS has been -- and continues to be -- a debacle."

In a series of surveys over the last year, trial judges have used choice words for the project: "fiasco," "budget nightmare," "inferior product," "complete waste," "huge problem," "embarrassment," "huge drain" and "woefully misbegotten."

"The AOC seems to have a deeply embedded arrogance and disdain for the people it serves," said a trial judge in a survey requested by the chief justice. Another judge asked the chief to tame the massive central bureaucracy described as a "mega-monster."

Most fundamentally, the Orange County technical chief warned, "The Administrative Office of the Courts remains singularly focused on a solution that may cripple the judicial branch."

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