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The Masks Fall

An eerie quiet had settled on the battlefront between a group of reform-minded judges and California's court bureaucracy.

The judicial leadership succeeded, from what I could tell, in advancing the idea that those judges who criticized the bureaucracy were not being reasonable, particularly in a time of budget crisis. On the outer edge of the argument was a suggestion that they were disloyal.

But the bureaucrats cannot help putting their feet in it.

And as has been the case time and time again, the latest blunder involves the enormous white elephant that is the Court Case Management System.

In that most recent misstep, high bureaucrats and high judges said a "game changer," a "golden moment" had arrived because a businessman is offering to host all the data generated by the CCMS system.

Not one person voted against the proposal on the Judicial Council, the body that advises the Chief Justice and sets policy for the courts in California.

The people of California have already paid somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-billion dollars for the system, with more than a billion more in projected expense. Any proposal to hand such an enormous public investment over to a communication network controlled by private individuals should raise an alarm.

Control of the highway to and from the virtual courthouse can be used to extract millions from the public and from lawyers, as was done in Colorado where a private publisher controlled the data center used by the courts.

Yet California's court administrative office portrays the businessman's offer to host the CCMS system as an act of pure philanthropy.

One California state senator is now questioning the deal in a newspaper article that has aroused the Alliance of California Judges from its hibernation, and put the opposing forces back on the warpath.

The Daily Journal, where I worked as a young reporter, finally published a story that advanced the news on the whole IT project boondoggle. In the article, Senator Noreen Evans departed from her steady defense of the court administrative office to criticize the proposed deal with the businessman.

Evans said she is "very skeptical about the proposal."

Evans chairs California's Senate Judiciary Committee and has acted as legislative gate keeper for the Chief Justice and the administrative office bureaucrats, killing or gutting bills they don't like. They can ill afford to go against her.

But the high court officials are now taking the position that nobody needs to know about the negotiations with the businessman until they are finished, certainly not the state Auditor nor the Legislature.

That is the old court administrative office I know do everything out of sight and then present the fait accompli for discussion and defense. It is also the administrative office familiar to the reform-oriented group of trial judges.

"Getting the simple truth from the AOC is still nearly impossible," said Judge Chuck Horan in Los Angeles.

"It is clear from statements made by Justice Bruiniers and others that discussions between the AOC and their potential 'benefactor' have been underway in secret for over a year," added the Alliance of California Judges in a statement. "In typical AOC fashion, however, they waited until the last minute to reveal the proposal, instructing us not to worry."

The administrative office has also rejected efforts by Assembly Speaker John Perez to include the State Auditor in the discussions over the deal, according to the newspaper article. The lobbyist for the court administrators said they did not want a "third party" in the negotiations, but he made the assurance that the deal would be transparent "in the end."

"The promise by the AOC's Curtis Child that in the end the process will be `transparent' rings hollow," said the Alliance judges. "This simply means that once the deal is inked, the AOC will reveal its details."

"We call on the AOC and Judicial Council to immediately open this process to the State Auditor and to the judges of this state," they said. "The AOC's absolutely disastrous track record in the entire CCMS fiasco makes it imperative that they not be given free rein in this matter."

The fire is rekindled, the battle engaged once more. As one judge put it, "Nice to see the masks come off."

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