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Trial Judges Fire Back After Justice’s Email Defending $1.9 Billion IT System for Courts

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Trial judges around California are firing back after an appellate justice sent out an email saying trial court judges "uniformly and enthusiastically" support a controversial $1.9 billion IT system. The email was sent just before the release of a blistering state audit that suggested administrators had hid the true cost of the system and failed to make sure it was necessary before plunging ahead.

Mounting dissatisfaction with the massive IT project, where the current version is called CCMS V-3, prompted state administrators to form a set of "oversight" committees two weeks ago. In the first memo coming out of those committees, Justice Terence Bruiniers said, "The judges who actually use CCMS uniformly, and enthusiastically support CCMS."

That statement brought a rapid rebuttal from judges in San Diego, where the system has been put in place.

"I dispute the contention that CCMSV3 works," wrote San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Cline in a response to Bruiniers.

Cline said in an interview that he no longer uses the system, but did use it during his ten-year tenure as a probate judge. "It takes many more steps to do the same job," Cline said, noting that one staff research attorney in probate had reported that it took 42 steps just to post her work online through the system.

Another San Diego judge also took issue with the justice's email.

"Our system is not horrible, it is just not that great," wrote San Diego Superior Court Judge Earl Maas, who is also a technology expert. "It is also not worth anything like what we are, or will be paying for it. It is slow, labor intensive, and does little that off the shelf programs could not have been modified to do for much less investment."

Judge Runston Maino, also from San Diego, requested a retraction of the justice's statement that trial judges endorse the system.

"It is clear to me and it should be clear to you, that you have been misinformed," said Maino. "You have made a statement about the judges of the San Diego Superior Court which is not true. I would ask you to send a retraction to all of the judges of the state of California to whom you sent this email transmission."

In an interview, Justice Bruiniers said he had been answering the trial court judges.

"Mistakes were made," the justice conceded. But he added that the judiciary's Administrative Office of the Courts is intent on deploying the final version of CCMS to three courts in April.

"I don't think you can possibly say we didn't make mistakes on this," Bruiniers continued."The judiciary didn't adequately oversee the effort. That's on us, the judiciary as a whole. We didn't get a broader governance structure in place, which we should have done some time ago. Mistakes were made, and the only thing we can do is acknowledge them, say we're going to fix it and move forward."


The email fracas arose over the recent initiative from court administrators establishing a set of four interlocking committees with a total of 60 members, with no overlap in the membership of the four groups. One is called the "executive committee" and the others are called advisory committees, "justice partners," "general administrative" and "operational."

All committee members are appointed by William Vickrey who directs the Administrative Office of the Courts and is the principle force behind the politically volatile tech system.

The executive committee includes judges from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno and Plumas, courts that have not adopted the CCMS system, paired with judges from Orange County, San Diego, and Sacramento, courts that have, in addition to three court clerks from Santa Clara, which is considering the system, Ventura, a so-called "early adopter" of CCMS, and Butte which maintains an older and simpler system.

The justice partner advisory committee includes lawyers, prosecutors, defenders, probation officers and family law officials.

The general administrative committee is made up mostly of clerks, from Shasta and Eldorado in the north to Marin, Solano and Monterey in the center of the state to San Joaquin and San Bernardino in its heartland as well as Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz along the central coast.

The operational committee is made up of judges from San Francisco, Santa Clara, Mendocino, Merced, Los Angeles, which have not adopted the new system, plus two judges from Ventura and San Diego, which have adopted it.

"Permit me to observe that the committee you chair was selected not for subject matter competence or a working familiarity with CCMS," said Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge Steve White in a letter to Bruiniers.

"Like you, precious few of your committee members actually use CCMS. They, however honorable, were not selected for their expertise or experience with CCMS," wrote White. "Meanwhile, members of our court who know CCMS inside and out were purposely excluded from your committee precisely because they know the subject."

An assistant professor of public administration at the University of San Francisco suggested the committees were too big.

"If you could have a smaller oversight committee, it would be ideal," said assistant professor Monika Hudson. "A lot of times the size isn't a decision of what works, but a question of the politics."

The four committees, described by the AOC as "new management oversight," were announced one week before a brutal audit from the state auditor.

The 143-page audit said the cost of the CCMS system is mounting to $1.9 billion in contrast to a much lower estimate from the administrators. "There are significant differences between the cost of the statewide case management project that the AOC reported to the legislature and the AOC's internal cost estimates," said Auditor Elaine Howle.

Her staff surveyed 51 county superior courts, representing a large majority of the California's 58 counties. Of those surveyed, 18 said their existing IT system for case management served their needs, 32 said their current system would serve them for the forseeable future and only 12 were either positive or neutral about the new CCMS system.

The audit has also generated press attention around the state including editorials sharply critical of the spending. The Bakersfield Californian, for example, ran a column entitled "You Don't Need a Computer to Understand This Mess."

"The AOC has sacrificed trial court funding in order to pay for its failed computer system," said the column by Lois Henry. "To say the AOC is tone deaf is an understatement. Stone deaf would be more like it."

The joint legislative audit committe will hear testimony from the auditor in Sacramento on Tuesday morning and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye as well as director Vickrey are invited.

In the more detailed attack and defense of the system among California's judges, Justice Bruiniers said in his original email to other judges around the state that the system works.

"Does it work? It does," said Bruiniers' email. "The V3 civil module is in daily use by judges and court staff in San Diego, Orange, San Joaquin and Ventura, and is now handling about 25% of the state-wide civil filings. The judges who actually use CCMS in those courts uniformly, and enthusiastically, support CCMS."

In his reply, Judge Cline from San Diego wrote, "In fact, the system almost doubled the time we devoted to our regular duties."

The judge focused on the probate courts where he has extensive experience, noting that CCMS is excruciatingly cumbersome in that court.

"One credible explanation for the difficulties would be that this that the civil version of CCMS-V3 was used as the model that was modified to create the probate version," he said. "While intuitively this may sound like a good idea, the result is like using a farm truck as a model for a VW Bug."

"No matter how fuel efficient the VW ends up, you still cannot get an adult pig in the trunk."

Cline added, "CCMS-V3 may work for some purposes and in some places. But, it does not work in all places and for all of its designated purposes. In short, it does not work the way it should. A lot of money has been spent on a defective product. Let us not pour more money into the pit, at least not without some guarantees."

Maas, also in San Diego where CCMS is in place, said the better approach would have been to ask what is allowed by the current technology, then ask what modifications, within a reasonable budget, can be made to "adapt the existing, inexpensive technology to our needs."

"We could still do this," he said, "but it would take a willingness to admit that the current system may not be best."

In answer to critics from the judiciary and the legislature, Bruiniers said, "We've got three courts sitting there saying we need this system, and if we in fact have a product that does what we say it will do, saying you can't use it in the courts that need it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me."

"We need to see the product working in a real world environment, " he said. "Why you would put it on a shelf makes no sense to me."

But Bruiniers also said that before April's planned deployment of the latest version of the IT system, the administrators need to "restore trust and confidence" among the judges. "We've lost a bunch of that because of the audit report and we've got to restore it. We've got to convince our colleagues that this is a system by and for the trial courts."

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