Assignment 7

California judges want $1B computer system scrapped

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A computer network for California's state court system is overdue, doesn't work and could cost taxpayers more than $1 billion when it's over. Some Sacramento judges are calling for the whole thing to be scrapped.

The courts in Sacramento County shut down their public documents computers last week. A glitch released confidential information, including medical records, to courthouse computers the public can access.

No one knows when the error happened or how many people saw the sensitive information.

"It's horrible. It's just unbelievable," says Judge Shelleyanne Chang.

Chang is not surprised because of the computer system's chronic problems.

"There is no way for us to discriminately seal certain documents in a filing," she says.

The controversial computer system is called CCMS, which stands for "California Case Management System." It is the brainchild of the judicial council, which sets statewide policy for the 58 trial courts in California.

CCMS was conceived eight years ago to connect all of the courts to one computer system, making it easier for judges to manage their caseloads. Sacramento Superior Court, along with half a dozen other counties, agreed to be the first to install the system before it would go statewide.

Sacramento County's presiding judge, Steve White, says it has failed miserably.

"It's very slow. It makes countless mistakes," he says. "We had a better system before we got involved with CCMS."

Even more, the price tag for CCMS has skyrocketed to $1.3 billion from its initial cost estimate of $250 million. Sacramento judge Maryanne Gilliard is a member of the Alliance of California Judges, a group lobbying for reforms and transparency in the judicial council.

"As judges, we should have the courage to step forward and admit we've made a mistake," she says. "I do think CCMS has been a mistake."

Sacramento has had to add more staff to handle laborious data entry work, which includes cutting and pasting rulings into the new system. Filing a simple document is not simple anymore.

"The CCMS system is so user-intensive, so labor intensive, it takes so many more multiple keystrokes to actually even file a document that people regularly come here with camp chairs and books because they are going to be spending that much time in line to file a simple document," Gilliard says.

The judges in Sacramento say the root of the problem is that the computer system's server is located in Arizona. They want their own server in Sacramento so their IT specialists can do whatever is necessary to make the system work.

"We have no control over our data. We cannot retrieve it. We cannot generate reports. We are hostage to a server in Tempe, Arizona," Gilliard says.

The judges told the judicial council they want to dump the Arizona server and replace it with their own, but a committee of the judicial council ordered Sacramento to maintain the status quo until the full body can discuss their problems later this month.

Presiding Judge White wrote back, "The court respectfully declines to do so."

"We're not going to have a second-rate, overpriced, unworkable system for our judges and the people of our county," White says.

"What we're saying is why don't you let us work with you?" Ron Overholt says.

Overholt is an executive with the judicial council's administrative office. He says Sacramento's system may need some adjustments to fix their problems, but he adds that the system works just fine with the server in Arizona.

"It doesn't matter where the box is that's running the applications," he says. "So, we do believe it's a good approach and that Sacramento can have everything that they would like to have with the statewide system."

Overholt also points to a review of CCMS in April by the state's chief information officer which concludes the project can go ahead. However, the report also points out that CCMS faces challenges because of its size and complexity.

Judge Gilliard says the report basically concludes that, "Just like AIG, CCMS is too big to fail. There is a blank check and that blank check right now totals $1.3 billion."

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