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Sacramento Court Turns Public Access|Around With New System

SACRAMENTO (CN) - Sacramento judges on Thursday introduced the first case search system in California built without outside consultants, saying it was constructed without extra funding, gives free public access online and stands in telling contrast to the financially disastrous Court Case Management System developed by the central bureaucracy of California's courts.

Judge Maryanne Gilliard said the Sacramento court's technical staff created the new search system with funds already in the court's budget. Her presentation to a packed courtroom of journalists, court officials and lawyers included a big-screen review of the new features conducted by technology chief Heather Pettit.

"All of our judges believe in free public access," Gilliard told the crowd.

Under its new leadership, Sacramento Superior Court has become a highly transparent California court, providing the public with prompt access to public documents.

Journalists can now undertake a full review of new matters on the day they are filed, where the previous access was delayed, partial and intermittent. The public can now see records promptly online or at the courthouse, where access had been delayed for weeks and months.

The turn-around has come with a January change in leadership when Presiding Judge Robert Hight and Assistant Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane took the court's reins.

The new direction came suddenly after a multi-year effort by the media, including Courthouse News, to improve public access following the Sacramento court's implementation in fall 2007 of the Court Case Management System, software developed at enormous cost by the Administrative Office of the Courts through Deloitte Consulting.

The Sacramento clerk at the time, Dennis Jones, was enmeshed with the AOC and paid by the agency. In separate meetings with press representatives, both Jones and his deputy Jake Chatters rejected any effort to improve public access.

Chatters at the time said he did not consider a new matter filed until it was fully processed, a set of tasks that often took two months to accomplish. That view has subsequently been adopted by AOC officials in recent e-filing rules, over the strong objections of press groups including the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

In the years since CCMS was put in place in Sacramento, former Presiding Judge Steve White battled with the administrative office over control of the software which was housed on servers in Arizona and was prone to breakdowns, and former Presiding Judge Laurie Earl rejected a final version of CCMS in a letter that blasted its efficacy and contributed to the ultimate abandonment of the troubled ten-year old project.

In Thursday's presentation, Gilliard pointedly noted that the AOC, with 161 IT employees in its San Francisco headquarters, could not get CCMS to function correctly. In contrast, Sacramento's new system was built entirely by the 31 technical workers in Sacramento at no extra cost to California taxpayers.

Gilliard said the decision by the centralized AOC to spend almost half a billion dollars on the defunct CCMS system is "still cited nationwide as a giant boondoggle and debacle."

Pounding on the disastrous consequences of that program, she said that the extraordinary waste of public funds combined with the economic recession had resulted in a 30% reduction to the Sacramento court's staff since 2008.

During the big-screen presentation of Sacramento's new system, technology chief Pettit pointed to a feature that allows anyone to follow an ongoing case by signing up for free notifications whenever a new document is filed. That capacity represents an extraoardinary improvement in public access in a state court.

A few federal courts have set up a similar function although most have not. Courthouse News, with nationwide coverage of state and federal courts, is unaware of any other state court that provides such a capability to journalists and the public.

Sacramento's new public access system is not completely free, however. The new format will go live on April 7 and can be accessed remotely or at the court for free until July 1, when the court will begin charging for remote access to documents and name searches.

Name searches are generally conducted by agencies paid to conduct employer background checks, and the court will charge $1 for each search. In addition, a copy of any documents will cost $1 per page for the first five pages of each document and 40 cents per page for each additional page.

The court will spend more than $800,000 annually to provide the case search system, with more than $400,000 going to web-hosting hardware and software, more than $200,000 for the document managing system and more than $145,000 for Adobe software, according to a printout provided by the court.

Access to all aspects of the system will remain free at the courthouse. The fee structure will remain in place until the court can offset the $800,000 annual cost the court incurred creating and maintaining the system, the judge said.

"The charges are temporary," Gilliard promised. "Once the court is in position to provide remote access to documents for free we will do so."

The announcement from Sacramento Superior followed shortly after the public watchdog CalAware released an audit of the California courts on Wednesday afternoon. Judge Gilliard pointedly noted the audit's conclusion that local trial court officials were substantially more committed to transparency in government and more responsive to information requests than the overarching bureaucracy at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

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