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White Elephant

A while back, I thought I heard the death knell sounding for a big and enormously expensive IT system pushed by the central bureaucracy of California's courts. But it lived on.

This summer, when the governing council for the courts voted to suspend work on the Court Case Management System, I thought, that's the end.

A month later, the bureaucrats atop the court system came back and said they had not suspended or stopped anything on the project. Oh, and they were in fact budgeting another $265 million for it, after having already spent $521 million on the thing.

"It doesn't look like they intend to let go of the monster they've created," said accountant Karen Covel who had analyzed earlier budget statements by the bureaucrats for our news service.

But once more, I hear death's hand knocking on the monster's door.

This time it's because of a collective shrug from the state's big trial courts, turning away from the latest version of the IT system, the one that allows for electronic filing.

One after another has refused to adopt that final V-4 version, and now San Francisco is going its own way on electronic filing.

San Francisco's position is unequivocal. It has not and will not adopt the technology pushed by the central bureaucracy.

A judge told me recently that "the wheels are coming off" at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

One of the tells is a shift taking place within the blocks of power in California's court system.

A rump group of trial courts appears to be forming in Southern California, made up of the courts in San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino, which are Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, in terms of population size in California.

Los Angeles is No. 1, with the biggest population in the state and the biggest trial court in the nation.

The Los Angeles network of courts has consistently shunned the Court Case Management System, using the technology in one courtroom in order to keep an eye on it. And the court recently declined to participate in a study aimed at pushing the final V-4 version into California's trial courts.

In terms of population, L.A. is home to 10.4 million people.

But that number, hefty as it may be, is edged by the combined population of the rump group. San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino account for 10.46 million people.

The gang of four is rolling together, a vendor told me, hiring a San Diego consultant who is an old hand at court technology while also working with a Riverside company experienced in developing court software.

Not one of those top 5 courts in California is adopting the final version of the CCMS software.

If you look at the rejection by L.A. and then add the rejection by the gang of four, that means courts representing well over half of California's population have turned away.

You add Sacramento, which has explicitly rejected V-4, and San Francisco, which has done the same. And then you figure that given those decisions, it is highly unlikely that bigger Northern California courts such as Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa will adopt that final version.

Pretty quickly, the only courts in the market for the technology are the smaller, rural courts that consider themselves dependent on the central bureaucracy.

Then, it seems to me, you have to wonder how long it will take for the legislators who defend the IT project, and for those many judges who still do, how long will it take them to realize that the green monster, gorged on public dollars, is transforming before their very eyes into a white elephant.

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