We expected the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the San Francisco based bureaucracy that manages the statewide court system, to make all kinds of pathetic excuses for wasting more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money on the failed California Case Management System (CCMS). We also expected the same litany of excuses from the Judicial Council, an insular group chaired by the Chief Justice that repeatedly approved millions of dollars in spending for CCMS, even as courts were closing their doors to the public for lack of funds. Still, even we were surprised to see the editorial boards of several major California newspapers – among them the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee – glossing over glaring evidence of waste and mismanagement at the hands of the AOC. It’s too bad these print media titans are content to lap up and then print “editorials” that simply track AOC talking-points.
Shame on them all.
In a recent editorial, the Bee lamented the demise of CCMS as a failure to bring the judicial branch into the electronic age. The Times suggested lawyers can’t track case progress without phone calls or costly court visits. According to judges I have spoken with up and down the state, that’s bunk. The notion advanced by the Times and the Bee that our courts are using the equivalent of quill pens and ink wells could not be further from the truth. Frankly, these are simply falsehoods designed to further an obvious agenda—fealty to the AOC and Judicial Council, centralized control of the courts by the Chief Justice and AOC, and handouts to the plaintiff’s bar.
Long before CCMS was rammed down the throat of Orange County, that court’s IT department had already developed in-house computer programs with advanced imaging software that made court filings available at the click of a mouse. One OC judge, recently facing a traffic offender who insisted he had never gotten a ticket, clicked on the case number, scrolled to the image, printed a copy of the ticket and handed it to a red-faced defendant…who promptly pleaded guilty. I am told that one judge did so from a computer terminal that has been on his bench for the last 10 years. He also told me that any judge or clerk anywhere in the OC court system could have done the same thing.
While the Times and Bee wrongly imply that our courts invest more in carbon paper than computers, all of the larger courts have existing software systems that are more than adequate during the current fiscal crisis. Today, advanced off-the-shelf case management software is readily available for a fraction of what the AOC wasted on CCMS. Seattle courts recently invested $5 million in a new web-based software system that allows lawyers and litigants to do a host of paperless transactions, including e-filing and document searches, a mere fraction of the half-billion the AOC blew on CCMS.
Facing more court closures and massive layoffs of court personnel, the decision to end CCMS was the right call. In fact, it was an obvious call—so obvious that the Judicial Council and AOC should have done it years ago, as many judges demanded. Hats off to the Alliance of California Judges, whose members (now more than a quarter of all sitting judges) worked tirelessly to end this costly boondoggle. We have these courageous judges to thank for stopping a train wreck that was estimated to cost upwards of $3 billion to fully implement.
Half of a billion dollars is a ghastly waste of taxpayer funds. As one Alliance director told me, “it’s too bad the decision to stop CCMS didn’t come about $400 million ago.” Amen to that.