(CN) - San Diego Superior Court has started an expensive new technology project at a time when California's courts are complaining loudly of budget shortages. At a cost of $7 million for equipment and more to hire new clerks, the project to scan public documents requires the public to either pay a substantial fee online or see the documents at the courthouse on a delayed basis.
The $7 million expense " involves the cost of hardware and software," said the court's public information officer Karen Dalton, adding that the cost would be spread out over six years. The manager of a private firm that provides court services said those estimates probably understate the final cost of the project.
"We are still analyzing staffing expenditures as we migrate employees toward the imaging system," Dalton said. She later added that the court had hired five new clerks for the project at a cost of $215,000, and that other clerks would be reassigned to the project in the future.
The move by San Diego Superior Court comes at a time when most of California's courts face a severe budget crisis, based on the Legislature's decision this summer to lop hundreds of millions off the proposed budget item for state courts.
The San Diego court's expensive and ambitious project was started within a couple weeks after the head court clerk, Michael Roddy, described the court's financial situation in bleak terms, suggesting staff might be furloughed and courtrooms closed.
He told the state's Judicial Council in September that San Diego Superior Court had already cut back on all discretionary expenses, including books, publications, infrastructure and technology. Roddy also told the council that the current financial crisis "is longer, deeper, far more traumatic that we're getting now to the things that are going to start touching courtrooms. And I don't know how to avoid that."
"We're looking at voluntary furloughs if things don't change," Roddy went on. "We've got an $11 million hole to deal with."
Shortly after those statements were made, the San Diego court began in early October switching a few judges over to the scanning program. Although a couple courtrooms are still not part of the program, the large majority of judges had been switched over by the early part of November.
As the court's chief executive officer, Roddy has led the court through its adoption of an extraordinarily expensive Court Case Management System that is favored by the central Administrative Office of the Courts while being derided by many superior court judges.
As a result, say judges in other courts, San Diego is favored by that central corps of administrators who disburse hundreds of millions of public money to local courts and contractors with little public oversight.
The effect of San Diego's scanning project is to impose a fee on review of public documents online while delaying their review at the courthouse, based on the fact that an extra task has been added onto the process a public document must pass through before it can be seen by the public or the press.
The court maintained a media bin for a number of years where the new cases were placed for press review after they were entered into the court's computer system. The media bin was eliminated earlier this month.
A high proportion of the scanned images now come online after 3:30 in the afternoon, when the court's filing office closes to the public and press. The result is that the only way to see those cases on the day they are first made available for public viewing is to pay the court the online price that ranges between $7.50 and $40 for each document.
"The court is going into the business of selling public documents online," said a Courthouse News reporter who covers the court.
An experienced manager of a private provider of court services, who asked that his name not be used, said San Diego's cost estimate sounded about right but for one year, not six.
"San Diego probably doesn't really have sense of what this is going to cost them until they get into it," said the manager. Comparing the figure to a similarly sized court that pays roughly $7 million per year to scan court documents, he said that $7 million every year would be a more accurate estimate, given his experience.
The manager went on to say that most courts do not realize how much a scanning program costs until the project is well underway, with staff expenses making up the bulk of unplanned expenditures.
"It's just not about buying the hardware and software." he said. "Costs only go up, they don't go down. Unless you're a very well run court you have no idea about the impact of an imaging program."
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