Judges Resist Plan to Unify Court System in California

March 12, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The crowning achievement in the career of former Chief Justice Ron George of California was expected to be the result of his crusade to drag the nation’s largest state court system into the 21st century: a computer system linking every courthouse in the state’s 58 counties.

As envisioned a decade ago, the system would allow anyone in any courthouse to get real-time information on just about any case in the state.

Instead, the state auditor has concluded that court officials have managed the project so poorly that it has been installed in just seven counties since 2004, and to mixed reviews.

The troubles plaguing the project, which is formally known as the California Court Management System, are also threatening to undo the considerable political gains that Chief Justice George won for the courts before he retired in January.

Court unification was the centerpiece of his 14 years as chief justice; he pushed legislation that centralized court financing with the Administrative Office of the Courts and largely eliminated county control over local court budgets. Those moves ensured steady financing statewide.

But many trial judges and court workers throughout the state are now in open revolt over the management system.

“The idea of having all of the courts connected through a case-management system is appealing in the abstract — all of us favor the concept,” said Steve White, presiding judge of Sacramento County Superior Court, which uses the new computer system. “But that has turned into an ill-conceived, mismanaged and failed experiment. It simply has not worked.”

On Feb. 8, the state auditor, Elaine Howle, issued a report concluding that mismanagement had drastically increased the computer project’s cost and severely delayed deployment of the system, which may now have to be significantly scaled back.

In 2004, administrators predicted that the project would cost $260 million to complete. To date, however, more $330 million has been spent, and statewide deployment is now estimated at $1.3 billion. The state auditor puts that figure closer to $1.9 billion.

Officials at the Administrative Office of the Courts said rising costs had always been anticipated. But a growing number of critics say the administrative office has surpassed its mandate and exercised nearly complete authority over every courthouse.

They point to the troubled computer system as one of the biggest problems, complaining that the office continued to pay for a failing project while furloughing court employees and closing courts during business hours to save money.

Judge White of Sacramento County is also the leader of the Alliance of California Judges, an organization that is dissatisfied with the Administrative Office of the Courts in general and the computer project in particular. The group has urged that the project be halted, and Judge White said the alliance had signed up more than 400 of the state’s 1,600 judges since it was created two years ago.

Ricardo Lara and Bonnie Lowenthal of the State Assembly also sent a letter last month to the new chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, demanding that the chief of the administrative office, Bill Vickrey, be dismissed.

The lawmakers said that Mr. Vickrey had ignored a legislative analysis in 2004 that warned of the project’s lack of planning and oversight. “Mr. Vickrey’s bewildering dismissal of sound advice has resulted in the kind of debacle that, in any other setting, already would have resulted in termination,” the letter said.

Justice Cantil-Sakauye, who was sworn in on Jan. 3, said that she stood by Mr. Vickrey and the computer project, and she criticized the lawmakers’ recent letter.

“I consider this letter a serious attempt to interfere with judicial branch governance,” the new chief justice said. “Moreover, this letter is a profound diversion from the difficult issues that our branch is trying to resolve.”