Audit finds California courts' computer project far over budget and urges suspension

Cost of the effort to update and link court computers in all California counties has skyrocketed from $260 million to up to $1.9 billion, the report finds. The Judicial Council defends the program, but some judges say it should be halted.

February 09, 2011

By Patrick McGreevy

Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento A computer modernization project for the state's court system has soared in cost from $260 million to as much as $1.9 billion and is now so far over budget and behind schedule that it should be put on hold and reconsidered, a new state audit has found.

The project, the California Court Case Management System, is supposed to modernize and link court computers in California's 58 counties. But it has been beset with problems almost since it was started in 2001, spurring legislators to ask for the audit. The system was supposed to be finished in 2009 but now may not be ready until 2016, and even then it could be incomplete, according to the scathing 143-page audit by state Auditor Elaine Howle.

Installation costs would be significantly higher than estimated or allocated for the project, "which is now at risk of failure due to a lack of funding," Howle warned in a letter Tuesday to Gov. Jerry Brown.

The state Judicial Council and court systems have spent $407 million so far on developing the system and have installed a limited version in seven counties, including Los Angeles and Sacramento. They plan to launch the full system in three counties Ventura, San Diego and San Luis Obispo as a next step.

But Howle's auditors recommended that they first bring in an independent consultant to review the quality of the system and conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

Judicial Council officials said Tuesday that they agreed with some audit findings and have taken corrective steps. But they said they will not delay installation work that is already beginning in the three counties.

"There seems to be little question that we're on the right path," said 1st District Court of Appeal Associate Justice Terence L. Bruiniers, chairman of a Judicial Council committee on the project. "I think it's important to emphasize that the audit does not recommend ending the project. We need to move on."

The court administrators say they are confident the project can be completed for $1.3 billion, below Howle's new estimate.

The expensive project began as a more modest effort involving a handful of courts. It is now supposed to allow all courts to instantly update information on cases so the information is available throughout the state. If it works, the system will give residents the ability to file documents electronically without visiting a courthouse.

But it has created bitter division among California's judges.

Some jurists said Tuesday that already completed computer upgrades in Los Angeles and the other six counties should be maintained but that the rest of the project should be scrapped.

The larger project is unnecessary and has become a drain on court finances that has forced some courtrooms to be shuttered, said Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge Steve White, who called the project "a disaster."

Howle's report "is the most devastating audit I have ever read," White said. "They should put everything on ice."

The auditor found that court officials have failed to assess whether the system "would be a cost-beneficial solution to the superior courts' technology needs" and that they could not adequately explain how they had arrived at some "critical decisions during the project's planning and development.''

The audit concluded that court officials had bungled the contracting process and had failed to heed warnings about the system raised by their own consultant.

One example Howle cited was a major vendor contract that was changed 102 times, increasing the bill from $33 million to $310 million.

In Los Angeles County, officials told auditors that they would not adopt the larger system unless their concerns about it were resolved, Howle said.

Some of those concerns about the system's quality could be addressed if the courts hired a consultant to independently review the project, Howle said, adding that the review could take as little as two months and identify problems that could jeopardize the system's success.

However, the Judicial Council said it was unnecessary to hire another consultant to conduct a review because the current contractors had begun "rigorous testing" of the system to make sure there were no glitches.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles Horan is among those who said the audit should trigger a halt to the project and reevaluation of its scope.

"My breath was taken away at the depth and breadth of mismanagement uncovered by the auditor," Horan said. "It is time for real reform, and hopefully this report will provide the impetus."

Times staff writer Maura Dolan contributed to this report.