SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The state’s judicial leadership on Tuesday approved the taking of $142 million in money set aside for trial court operations, maintenance and construction, largely in order to fund a controversial technology project. The vote came despite the opposition of Sacramento’s presiding judge who called the technology project a fiscal “misadventure” and “a long road to a small house.”
The 13-2 vote approving the fund transfer came despite an earlier vote saying that keeping the courts operating should be the highest priority. The two judges opposing the fund transfer are both from Los Angeles, incoming Presiding Judge Lee Edmon and trial court Judge David Wesley.
The meeting was presided over by outgoing Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George. Incoming Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who was sworn in last week, did not attend.
“The reality comes when we have to look at how we spend judicial money,” said Presiding Judge Steve White of Sacramento Superior, speaking during a 10-minute public comment period on behalf of the Alliance of California Judges, the group that has criticized the AOC’s spending practices.
The alliance has argued that long lines, closed courtrooms, mandated furloughs and employee lay-offs have resulted in restricted public access to justice. White noted the “$25-$28 billion” hole in the state’s budget, and pointed to five hour case filing lines in Sacramento Superior as evidence of an increasingly dire fiscal problem.
The vote by the Judicial Council over those objections transferred $142 million from three different funds, from the trial court trust fund intended for construction, the modernization fund intended for remodeling and from the operations fund intended to keep courtrooms open and operating.
The money taken from those funds as a result of Tuesday’s vote will pay primarily for technology projects, that include the controversial Court Case Management System, a system intended to manage court records and link courts together so they can share information.
It is predicted to cost $1.3 billion by the time it is officially rolled out. Back in August, officials from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts told a legislative committee that the project would be completed in April 2011, but that date has since been pushed back to sometime in July 2011. AOC Director William Vickrey mentioned at Tuesday’s meeting that CCMS testing would continue into next winter.
That technology project has been criticized by trial court judges as an extraordinary waste of money and a “boondoggle.”
Judge White spoke eloquently at Tuesday’s meeting about CCMS as “a nice concept but a misadventure,” calling it “a very long road to a very small house.”
He said Sacramento has experienced a set of failures with the system. “We strongly object to additional money from trial court funds for advancing CCMS,” he said. “Even if it were a good program, as good as it may be, it’s not nearly as important as keeping the courts open. We should pave no more road to that small house.”
In his presentation and report to the council, AOC Finance Director Stephen Nash asked for the allocation of $49 million for statewide IT projects and $94 million for the maintenance of those projects, even though the special funds being depleted in order to pay for those projects have already dropped in size by $164 million.
Nash said the AOC needs an estimated $100 million to deploy and maintain the final version of CCMS, called V-4, and to maintain prior versions of the system until V-4 is ready. That final version is supposed to allow electronic filing of court papers.
Fully $87 million of the $142 million the AOC requested for IT projects will come from a much-disputed Trial Court Trust Fund, from which the alliance says the Judicial Council has no authority to draw.
In a letter to the council, Judge Charles Horan of Los Angeles Superior wrote, “The recommendation by the AOC for the expenditure of these funds makes no mention of Government Code Section 68085 and the restrictions it places on using TCTF [Trial Court Trust Fund] and [Trial Court Improvement Fund] for technology projects without the consent of the trial courts.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, the AOC nevertheless maintained that the Judicial Council does have statutory authority to allocate the money, and General Counsel Mary Roberts re-stated a previous AOC argument that all trial courts had already given implicit consent to CCMS funding by not overtly objecting to it years ago.
“Thus it may be argued that the courts, by not objecting to this funding structure, implicitly consented to it,” she said in reading from a prepared statement.
Even though the objecting Alliance of California Judges has contended that CCMS is a broken system, council members gave it unreserved praise. “I’ve heard judges say it’s ineffective,” said Judge Robert James Moss of Orange County Superior. “I just don’t understand where that comes from. I look forward to V-4.”
Council-member Mike Roddy, Court Executive Officer for San Diego Superior asked, “When do we stop saying it doesn’t work? It works everyday. When do we move off of that argument? V-4 is the only way forward. No one has presented a Plan B. This is the plan we’re committed to and we need to see it through. I know these are tough times but that’s what leadership and management is all about.”
As a dissenter in the 13-2 vote approving the funds, Judge Wesley of Los Angeles Superior Court, asked, “Can’t this money be used to keep our courts open?”
Judge Edmon of Los Angeles Superior Court said she could not vote in favor of the funding when “we don’t know what the budget next year will look like for court operations. It’s also a priority to keep the courts open, in my view it’s the top priority.”
Edmon, who has been one of the very few Judicial Council members willing to vote in opposition to its initiatives, is leaving that body. She was given a plaque and a copy of the Federalist Papers at Tuesday’s meeting.
The technology initiative by the courts is part of the larger issue of financial management of the courts that has been dogged by controversy. Last year, many courts imposed furloughs on their staffs and closed the courts one day a month, resulting in long lines to pay tickets and delays in trials.
In October, the Judicial Council’s Committee on Accountability and Efficiency decided to recommend a 3.5% raise for administrators even though at least some positions in the state court system are already compensated at higher rates than comparable jobs in the federal court system. The logic behind the recommendation for raise was that an even larger raise of eight percent had been put off because of the state’s fiscal crisis, so it should not be considered a raise.
That raise was voted into effect at Tuesday’s meeting.
The financial management issue is expected to come up again in January, when a final audit report of CCMS technology project by the Bureau of State Audits is expected to be released.
AOC Finance director Nash said the AOC has hired consulting firm Grant Thornton to do a cost-benefit of the system, which will determine if that technology project is worth the hefty price tag of $1.3 billion. The hefty price tag is due in large part to another consulting deal with Deloitte Consulting which is designing and maintaining the technology system for keeping track of court records.
In his letter to the Judicial Council, Judge Horan had asked the council to hold off on funding the technology project with trial court money until after the state’s audit, writing, “If the council again allows a raiding of the Trial Court Trust Fund and other special funds, it appears that additional closures will be inevitable.”