SACRAMENTO (CN) - California's statewide court computer system amounts to a $2 billion boondoggle, said a witness testifying Tuesday before legislators at a budget hearing in Sacramento. "It is completely substandard," said Karen Norwood, testifying on behalf of court employees in Los Angeles. "We're in a devastating situation."
The mammoth computer project initiated by the Administrative Office of the Courts has drawn scathing criticism from judges up and down the state. Within the last week, the enormous expenses tied to the project have been the subject of a press conference by Sacramento judges and a highly unusual letter from a dissident group of judges.
They labeled the $2 billion project a "substandard product at a grossly inflated price" and "wasteful government spending at its worst." The letter by judges from Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento took a rather un-judicial swipe at the court's leadership, particularly the AOC and the Judicial Council, saying their defense of the computer project was appropriately published "on April Fool's Day."
"For all the money spent on CCMS," said the judges, "it should not require additional programs or half-million dollar 'upgrades' to get it to function as advertised." The letter gave as an example of excess expense the amount required by Deloitte to customize the system for Orange County Superior Court.
The letter from the Alliance of California Judges, published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, said, "While a new uniform case management system may be desirable, it should be a system that works."
Started in 2002, the Court Computer Management System, commonly referred to as CCMS, was intended to bring uniformity to court data and allow courts to share information. It has been touted by California's Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, who initially asked the state for funding to upgrade court computer systems in 2000.
Originally slated to cost $260.2 million and serve six counties, the project has ballooned into a $2 billion public-relations nightmare and a system that remains incomplete.
Deloitte Consulting was granted a contract in 2003 to develop the project, a contract the dissident judges labeled in their letter "a sweetheart deal." Deloitte also received a contract to create a third version or "upgrade" of the system in 2006. One of the complaints about the affair is that the still uncompleted system is now falling out of warranty and Deloitte charges large sums to make repairs.
At a Monday press conference, Sacramento Superior Court judges said their court will pull the plug on the system's out-of-state server used to process and hold the CCMS data. Sacramento Superior Judge Trena Burger-Plavan said the judges have "complained and complained and complained" to the AOC over the failures to fix CCMS' problems.
The judges said they hoped to run the CCMS system at some point in the future on their own local server, if they get money from the state. That would entail another $1.45 million from a California court budget that is currently being squeezed so hard that hundreds of court staff are being dismissed in courts throughout California. Sacramento court officials argue that the expenditure would save money in the long run.
At the southern end of the state, San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston Maino said it all comes down to functionality and cost, and he knows of no court clerk who likes the CCMS system. "Boondoggle would be a good word to describe it," said the judge.
"What we're all finding is basically this system is not user friendly," said Maino. "It requires more time and complexity than should be required of a computer."
While Maino supports the notion of a statewide computer system, he said CCMS just isn't cutting it, since it is slow, tedious and requires a tremendous amount of extra work from clerks. "It requires clerks to go through a lot to input data that they used to be able to do in a couple windows. It asks for the same information over and over again," Maino said, adding that clerks need to have multiple windows open just to input all the data for one case.
Maino also said CCMS performs a lot of functions that courts and judges simply don't need or use, such as the ability to find out how fellow judges in different counties ruled on small claims cases. "The AOC might care, but I certainly don't," said Maino, likening CCMS to a Ferrari with the capability of going 220 miles an hour, though it's illegal and pointless to do so. "I can't legally go that fast. So why are we doing this?"
Despite all of the public criticism from judges, and the enormous budget cuts faced by the courts, no judges appeared at the Tuesday hearing before the Assembly's Subcommittee on State Administration which is considering the state court's budget.
Maino said even if he had known about the hearing he would have been unable to attend since he has been presiding over a gang shooting trial. Maino added that his office also does not have any legislative assistants available to send to Sacramento.
During an impromptu visit to his courtroom after the legislative hearing, Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge Steven White was asked why no one from Sacramento Superior Court had attended the budget committee hearing, three blocks away. Speaking from the bench, the judge said he was not aware of the hearing and was not the person to ask about the issue. He directed a reporter to Executive Officer Dennis Jones.
In an interview, Jones said that Sacramento Superior Court does not entirely disapprove of the CCMS system, only the Arizona server. Moving the operation from Arizona to Sacramento would ultimately be cheaper and more efficient, said Jones, costing about $1 million over five years to make the switch.
"The benefit for having the system here instead of Arizona is that it will make [CCMS] work better for us," said Jones, noting the "response time and down time issues" that his court has experienced with the Arizona server. Jones took a less confrontational tone than many of the judges criticizing the system. He said Orange County Superior Court has already implemented its own CCMS server, and it has worked well for them. If Sacramento did likewise, it could install its own plug-ins or "utilities that would make the system better," Jones said.
As for missing the budget meeting, Jones said his office was not informed that there had been one, but he would have gone had he been invited by the legislature.
As the sole representative from a California court to appear at Tuesday's legislative hearing, Norwood, who is President of Local 3302 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the money dedicated to computer systems would be better spent on people.
"The 2 billion dollars is enough to stop 329 people from being laid off," she said, "and keep the courts open five days a week."Follow @MariaDinzeo
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