Court Computer Project is Another Multibillion Dollar Boondoggle During Economic Downturn

yolo_county_courthouseLast week was the latest in a series of volleys back and forth between those questioning the timing and the need for the construction of the Yolo County court project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2015, and Judge David Rosenberg, who has made the new courthouse a centerpiece of his legacy as presiding judge.

Financing the more than five billion dollar statewide project are fines to convicted felons and traffic violators.  Roughly $178 million is going to Yolo County at a time when Yolo County is being forced to lay off and furlough employees, and cities like Davis have huge and growing unfunded liabilities.

However, the courthouse spending project is but one huge boondoggle for the state courts.

In the process of researching the story for Tuesday regarding Senator Leland Yee’s bill that would make court records more rapidly accessible, the Vanguard learned of the state auditor’s February report that blasts a $1.9 billion court computer project.

Wrote the Courthouse News Service in February, “A scathing audit of California’s court administration was released Tuesday by the Bureau of State Audits, blaming the administrators for a series of blunders in their 9-year effort to press a uniform computer system onto the state’s trial courts. The massive audit found that the bureaucrats had exercised ‘poor management’ of the computer project, disguised its true $1.9 billion cost, and failed to analyze the needs of the trial courts.”

However, they also reported that, despite the audit, those in charge will press on with the project.

“The head of the agency subjected to the auditor’s withering critique, William Vickrey, thanked the auditor and said the agency is pressing forward with deployment of the latest version of the IT system,” the report continued.

“An appellate judge closely tied to the project also vowed to continue its implementation,” the Courthouse News Service reported.

“It’s important to emphasize the audit does not recommend ending the project, said Justice Terence Bruiniers. “We need to move on.”

However, yesterday the same publication reported that California’s northern counties are showing “profound skepticism toward a new IT system being pushed by central court administrators.”

“The northern trial courts describe the new system as slow, complex and not worth the money. They complain the project has been poorly managed while their current systems are faster, simpler, and work just fine,” the Courthouse News service reported.

“We’re very satisfied with our current system and are not eager to migrate to a slower, more complex, and much more expensive system,” said the answer from Yuba County.

Writes the Courthouse News, “A central concern in the answers from 28 trial courts in northern California is the cost of the IT project, called the Court Case Management System. It is now projected to cost at least $1.9 billion, at a time when the state and individual courts are facing severe cuts to their operations.”

In an article last week, “Kern County’s trial court was the most outspoken among those in the San Joaquin Valley. The court condemned one of the central administrative agency’s pet projects, an IT system now approaching $2 billion in projected cost, saying it is “completely unsupported by any conceivable benefit.””

The article continues, “The blast from Kern County says that combining criminal and civil systems would yield no net benefit, that the cost of the IT system called the Court Case Managements System is not justified, and that a cheap, off-the-shelf system for case management would likely to the job better. And because law enforcement agencies have said they are not going to use the system, said Kern, it is next to useless.”

Yolo County also reported this week, stating, “Our current case management system satisfies our business needs and is very cost effective.” They add, “There are little to no benefits to our trial court in converting from our inexpensive case management system to a statewide CCMS.”

Yuba County  echoes Yolo, writing, “Although there are some benefits to having connectivity from court to court, it is not worth the trade-off. Our first and foremost responsibility is to provide efficient, timely customer service. If our efforts are thwarted by a cumbersome, unreliable system, it is a step back for us, not a step forward.”

Sierra County Superior responds fatalistically, “We are not confident that the CCMS V4 will comfortably accommodate small court venues such as ours, but recognize that we will be ultimately be required to participate in a state-wide solution.”

The Courthouse News reports, “In Yolo County, where the court is reluctant to migrate to a new computer system from one that is already paid for and suits them perfectly well, another concern is local control of case information.”

“The court is concerned with governance issues surrounding the loss of local control of its case management system and data,” Yolo County Superior Court says, regarding the Administrative Office of the Court’s plan to store the data of every court at a centralized server in Arizona.

“Data stored outside court control (and outside state lines- as is the case with CCMS) is contrary to existing statutory authority which vests primary control of court records with the presiding judge and the clerk of the court,” said the court’s answer. “The presiding judge and clerk of the court must maintain full authority and control of the court record to properly maintain and easily (and quickly) access the data contained therein as well as carry out their daily affairs.”

That audit was requested by Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal.

She issued a statement in February stating, “For nearly a decade, the project seems to have spiraled out of control. The audit shows poor planning, poor management and confirms my worst fears about this project.”

In an interview with the Courthouse News, she added, “While the AOC is moving forward with a costly computer system, courtrooms across the state are closing and there is less access to justice. The AOC needs to take a time out.”

Reacting to the audit, the head of the Judicial Council, William Vickrey, said in a press release, “The main thing is that we are moving forward now, and many lessons were learned that we can apply to the successful implementation of CCMS. We remain committed to this deployment approach which recognizes the state’s fiscal challenges and the need to move deployment forward.”

According the Courthouse News, “[Los Angeles Superior Court] Judge Charles Horan said the reaction from administrative office director Vickrey is modus operandi for his agency.”

“They reacted with a canned statement trying to defend themselves when it turns out they were horribly wasteful. This is bureaucratic damage control. It is predictable and it’s outlined in the audit report how these people do business.”

The Courthouse News reported, “A former federal prosecutor and former presiding judge in Los Angeles, Judge Stephen Czuleger, said he repeatedly warned Mr. Vickrey of the reckless manner in which the IT project was being pushed forward, without a business plan and without cost control.”

“They did not have business plan or a budget and everything in this audit was exactly what I was saying years ago,” said Judge Czuleger.

In her report, Auditor Elaine Howle was sharply critical of the cost estimates from Vickrey’s agency.

“Specifically, the four annual reports that the AOC submitted to the Legislature between 2005 and 2009 did not include comprehensive cost estimates for the project, and the 2010 report did not present the costs in an aggregate manner.

“As a result, these annual reports did not inform decision makers about the true cost of the statewide case management project. When asked by the Legislature in August 2010 what the true cost of the project will be upon its completion, AOC officials cited a figure of $1.3 billion,” Ms. Howle wrote.

But that estimate is inaccurate by a large margin, said the auditor.

“The full cost of the project is likely to reach nearly $1.9 billion,” said the audit. “However, this amount does not include costs that superior courts will incur to implement CCMS.”

The numbers, if you are keeping score at home are adding up.  $5 billion statewide for new courthouses, and now $2 billion statewide for a new computer system that local courthouses say they do not need, and a state auditor blasted for poor management and misleading the state on the funding.

While the funds may not be fungible, one can only wonder how much help they would have been protecting the jobs of teachers or put to other uses.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]We remain committed to this deployment approach which recognizes the state’s fiscal challenges and the need to move deployment forward.” [/quote]

    How does going ahead w a mismanaged $1.9 billion dollar boondoggle “recognize the state’s fiscal challenges”?

    [quote]We remain committed to this deployment approach which recognizes the state’s fiscal challenges and the need to move deployment forward.” [/quote]

    As I have said many times before, there is enormous waste in gov’t…

  2. Casey1060

    Children learning in portable classrooms, prisoners being let loose before their term is up do to space limitations, but there are still enough resources for a 1.9 billion dollar court computer project…

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