SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's Judicial Council voted unanimously Friday to explore partnering with a pharmaceutical billionaire's foundation to help fund a statewide court computer project. Two Los Angeles judges, Burt Pines and David Wesley, abstained from the vote.
"We are at this crossroads now and it seems to me, that this is remarkable opportunity, a remarkable open door, an open door that will in the future keep our Courts open and available, accessible, to our public and stakeholders," said Judge James Herman of Santa Barbara.
A letter of intent provided to media at Friday's meeting outlined a course of action for the next 12 weeks that will likely culminate in a deal between Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and the Administrative Office of the Courts to sink $20 million into the troubled Court Case Management System.
The AOC staff will investigate using Soon-Shiong's data center to host court information, an outcome, if realized, that would put the medical mogul in a position to profit from the sale of the information to lawyers and those looking for court records. Such arrangements between legal research companies and courts have in the past worked as state-granted monopolies on access to information, to the exclusion of other publishers and news organizations.
They have also been described by lawyers as putting a "troll at the courthouse door."
The California State Bar signaled its intent to join the proposed partnership, and indicated Thursday that it would consider a financial contribution to CCMS.
In urging council members to accept the letter of intent, Justice Terence Bruiniers upbraided the IT project's many critics, who have argued that the computer system is too costly and has been mismanaged from the beginning by the AOC.
"'CCMS is a boondoggle.' 'CCMS is a fiasco.' These are the statements that have been made by some of our colleagues and eagerly repeated in the media," said Bruiniers. "Government waste always makes for a good story. I haven't seen one story in the media that doesn't include the words 'troubled' or 'beleaguered.'"
A principal critic of the project is the California state auditor, as well as a majority of the state's judges who expressed deep dissatisfaction with the project in a statewide survey.
"In addition to planning inadequately for the state case management project, the AOC has consistently failed to develop accurate cost estimates," said the report by State Auditor Elaine Howle.
"The AOC has mismanaged this project from the beginning, " said Judge Maryanne Gilliard in Sacramento when the audit was released earlier this year. "They have consistently hidden the true cost from legislative scrutiny."
On Friday, as Soon-Shiong's offer was about to be considered, Justice Harry Hull turned to criticize the critics.
"I, for one, am supportive of proceeding with this letter of intent," said Justice Harry Hull. "After hearing of this debate for the year or so that I have been on the Council and on its committees, it seems to me among those that are willingly to engage in the honest assessment of the efficacy of CCMS agree we need it and it works. Frankly those not willing to engage in that intellectually honest discussion are in my view using CCMS to pursue an agenda both as to CCMS and generally not in the best interest of people of California."
Though judges Wesley and Pines did not vote on the proposal, they seemed satisfied that the letter was not a firm agreement to partner with Soon-Shiong. However, Wesley was concerned about the ethical implications of accepting a monetary gift from a bio-tech mogul with business interests.
"Here's what troubles me. This doctor has a lot of different entities and he has had litigation in my court," Wesley said. "As a member of the council I haven't done a due diligence in my court to determine if any of his companies have litigation before my court. I'm still a judge. How then do I sign onto a letter of intent, as a member of the council, to negotiate with somebody that may have a conflict of interest with me? As a judge, I cannot have a conflict of interest."
AOC general counsel Mary Roberts said the AOC would be primarily handling the agreement, which would ostensibly remove any ethical dilemma from the equation.
Soon-Shiong made most his approximately $5 billion off the sale of a drug to women with breast cancer, Abraxane, a drug criticized for its high cost and its lack of any effect that would justify the cost. The drug was described in a cancer research journal as "old wine in a new bottle." Soon-Shiong sold Abraxis BioScience last year for $2.9 billion
Hailed as a saviour by members of the council leading California's courts, he has also been described in news articles as "ruthless." He was sued by his brother and original business partner in the development of Abraxane and settled the matter by paying his brother and Mylan Laboratories $32 million.
"He's extremely civic-minded," said Judge Herman after the meeting. "He's interested philanthropically in improving the lives of the citizens of California." Herman added that use of Soon-Shiong's data center is not firm, nor is it yet clear whether CCMS will be hosted on the center free of charge.
He was also hesitant to call Soon-Shiong's offer a partnership, saying, "I would characterize it as a grant opportunity."