The ungainly beast that gobbled up the courts’ money seems to be dead.
The decision by an Assembly budget subcomittee last week to pull the plug on a case management system that has cost a half-billion dollars ought to be the kibosh. It was foretold in budget documents, saying the Court Case Management System would continue eating up hundreds of thousands every day in the coming years.
The beast was fed even as the tearing of the judicial fabric in California had become almost audible with courts planning layoffs and closing courtrooms.
In her state of the judiciary address earlier this week, the chief justice said, “I want to take a moment to acknowledge the role that the Legislature had in helping inform decisions about CCMS.”
I read that to be a gracious concession.
The Legislature has primarily bashed the project and the expenses tied to it. In last week’s budget subcommittee hearing, the legislators were peremptory and paternalistic in addressing the last-ditch defenders of the system.
Relying on the fancy-sounding techno-jargon that has been used successfully in the past to justify the project, Justice Bruiniers quoted from a report saying, “CCMS will perform as designed once it is deployed to the production environment.”
He was interrupted by Mike Feuer, who is also head of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee and who normally can be counted to support the initiatives of court administrators.
“I appreciate it,” said Feuer, “but I’m prepared to move that we suspend the program with regard to all courts who aren’t currently up and running.”
Bruiniers was followed by Judge James Herman from Santa Barbara who fared no better.
“This is not a system like a laptop computer that you can just punch a button on and shut it down,” said Herman.
He was interrupted by the head of the subcomittee, Gilbert Cedillo, who said, as though talking to a child, “We appreciate the magnitude of this. Basically, to use the parent language, we’re taking a little time out here, mmm’kay?”
I wondered when I heard that exchange if the committee members had been tipped by the chief justice or an emissary that she was OK with shutting the program down and the Legislature could act as executioner.
So when the chief thanked the Legislature for its help in making decisions about the program, I thought that statement in turn could be interpreted as saying, thanks for taking on that role.
Whether that guesswork is right or not, the two events brought the politics around the case management program back down to the ground.
When I heard a mere two months ago that the administrators wanted to go ahead with inserting the latest version of the beast into ten trial courts in California, I had the sense that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a bureaucratic Wonderland.
The notion that they would go ahead with the program, and spend the hundreds of millions that decision entails, while the court budget was being cut to the bone and into the bone, engendered a sense of helplessness, a kind of fatalism in knowing that reason and sense had left the building, never to return.
The committee’s decision to pull the plug meant those two characters had thankfully returned.
I also had the idea that a sort of grand bargain might be in place, that if the top brass of the courts agreed to give up on the case management project, the state Senate would kill a bill meant to reduce the size and power of the bureaucracy at the top of the courts.
If that were so, or some variation of that deal were in place, it would leave an increasingly desperate battle still to be fought.
If no more money is forthcoming from the Legislature, the pressure from the trial courts to take as much as possible out of the bureaucracy will continue. And in their fancy headquarters in San Francisco, the bureaucrats can be counted on to cling to their disintegrating empire for as long as they can.
“I can tell you that the judiciary is undergoing a transformation,” the chief justice told the Legislature, “but that is an understatement.”