Thursday, September 28, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, September 28, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Vampire’ Computer System Stalks California Courts From Its Grave

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In the aftermath of the decision to terminate a half-billion-dollar court computer project, supporters and detractors question whether it's really dead.

"Some people say it's like a vampire that isn't really dead until you drag its body out into the sunlight," said Orange County Judge Andrew Banks.

The governing council for California's courts voted last week to end a project that has lasted 10 years, cost the public $520 million and caused intense controversy within the state's judicial corps. But, as part of that decision, the Judicial Council decided to spend another $8.6 million.

"I think we have a semantic problem here," said council member Edith Matthai. "It doesn't mean it's terminated in the sense that it goes away never to be seen again in any shape or form. It means we take a look at what we've got and see how it can be revamped and reused."

Although Matthai is a lawyer and a non-voting member of the council, her view matches that of the administrators behind the failed project, and it was reflected in the council's vote to spend $8.6 million to both "terminate" the project and also "leverage" it.

"We remain concerned that the Judicial Council has not truly and completely abandoned this failed project," said the Alliance of California Judges in a statement.

Judge Runston Maino of San Diego, who compares the tech project to Howard Hughes' failed wood airplane, said, "Ms. Matthai's plan to go back to the drawing board to see what they have developed and to see how it can be revamped and reused makes as much sense as an airplane manufacturer taking a look at the Spruce Goose with the idea of seeing how it can be revamped and reused for current passenger needs."

But Justice Douglas Miller who chairs the council's powerful executive committee said funding for the final version of the software called CCMS V4 has in fact been halted.

"Funding for V4 has stopped, other than the approximate $2.7 million we need to shut it down," said Miller in an interview. "The additional $5 million was to take a look at the codes and see if there is something we can do with those."

'Not Spend a Penny'

At last week's meeting, the 18 voting judges on the council were given the option to kill the project entirely.

Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County moved to give each of the state's 58 trial courts the option to choose an off-the-shelf tech system to manage cases -- and end all financing for the project.

"We don't spend a penny," he said summing up his motion.

The motion was seconded by Los Angeles Judge David Wesley, who has at times been a lone voice on the council questioning the recommendations of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The option of allowing individual courts to buy modern case management systems off the shelf is attractive because of the relatively low cost. Last year, for example, Seattle courts bought and installed a system that allows electronic filing of court papers for $5 million.

Rosenberg's motion to not "spend a penny" was also consistent with an instruction from a California Assembly budget subcommittee to stop spending on the project. Chair Gilbert Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, instructed Santa Barbara's Judge James Herman last month to "take a time out."


Rosenberg's motion, however, was soundly rejected by the council 17-1. Only Wesley voted in favor. As a non-voting member, Rosenberg could not vote for his own motion.

Instead, the council adopted a motion by Judge Herman to spend another $8.6 million for termination of the project and "leverage of CCMS technology," a signal that the project is not quite dead.

Who Owns the Code

In the discussion running up to those votes, administrator Renea Hatcher told the council, "We own the code."

Under questioning, she qualified that statement, in reference to elements of the software apparently proprietary to Deloitte Consulting, the program developer.

"They're called vendor works, things that are proprietary to Deloitte that may or may not have been included in CCMS," Hatcher said elliptically. "To the extent that they are we would need to work with Deloitte if we were going to commercialize the product."

Judicial critics have argued that despite the enormous cost of the project, California remains beholden to Deloitte. They have also mocked the dream that the software could be "commercialized," or sold to others.

"We don't know what we own, what we have, how to use it or even how to access it," said Judge Stephen Czuleger in Los Angeles, a former member of the council.

He said the issue of the cost to wind up the project came up at an early stage in bidding for an initial $100 million contract. He asked the two leading bidders how much it would cost to end the project.

"The other company answered it with estimates and details," said Czuleger. "Deloitte only said something to the effect of 'subject to negotiations.' Fast forward to today and we have the wind up of the contract and the exact issue which I asked about is coming home to roost."

"I imagine this to be like a box," he added. "Inside we know there is a bunch of code. What we don't know is how to access it and use it. So we have to have Deloitte train AOC people for some unknown purpose to reach in the box, pull out the code and try to understand it. Folly."

Budget Breakdown

Talking about the salvage operation, administrator Hatcher told the council, "There is a $3.4 million tag to complete this work." She is from the AOC's Information Services Division.

She said the administrative office wants its own staff to learn the 6 millions lines of computer code contained in CCMS. That amount of code is more than it takes to run a Boeing 777, the world's biggest twin engine jet.

"We have to have specialized resources to be able to transfer that knowledge over to us," said Hatcher.

Budget documents presented to the council break the additional spending down mostly into the cost for highly paid personnel. That includes five consultants paid $576,000 for six months of work, in other words at a yearly rate of more than $200,000 each.

An additional sum of $63,600 is budgeted for 15 trips a month for 10 months for central and local administrators.

A much bigger amount of $2.6 million is budgeted for the salaries, benefits and expenses of 26 employees, in other words $100,000 each on average, for stints of 9 or 10 months.

Heading the executive committee, Justice Miller said he was not sure the experts would be from the AOC. But, he added, the council will need someone to tell its members whether parts of the software are viable.

"I want to make sure we fully examine it to make sure we get a return on what was invested in it," said Miller.

It will be up to individual courts to determine whether they want to accept parts of the centralized software or buy their own, off-the-shelf systems, he added. "It's not going to be a system mandated by the Judicial Council, the individual courts have to make those determinations."

Miller conceded that the council may find that it's too expensive to extract parts of CCMS V4. But, he said, "Someone's going to have to tell us."

Frankenstein's Bride

Judge Banks in Orange County, whose court has struggled with an earlier version of CCMS, said the courts are better off scrapping the project entirely.

"I don't think it's worth salvaging," said Banks. "I think they ought to walk away from V4 and not spend any more money down that rat hole and just let courts do what they want to do. It was a grand idea that was just too expensive for the real world and has too many problems."

"It's time to accept that they are human, that they made a mistake in that they did not account for the economic realities and the cost went out of control," he concluded. "They need to say to the courts, 'You're smart enough to be able to get the systems you need for your courts, now go do it.'"

But a retired Los Angeles judge who has been a powerful critic of the administrative office said the bureaucrats are unlikely to accept defeat so easily.

"If the past is a guide to the future, and I believe it is, the AOC will use the $8 million not to simply obtain the artifacts and code, but to try to once again breathe life into this Frankenstein monster of a system," said retired Judge Charles Horan. "Then they will try to engineer a shotgun wedding. Hopefully, courts will resist the notion of becoming the bride of Frankenstein."

Follow @MariaDinzeo
Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.