State auditor rips courts’ computer spending

The California State Auditor’s office has brought the smacketh down upon the Administrative Office of the Courts – the “brain” of the state’s judicial system – for essentially making it up as it went along on a new statewide case management computer system, which swelled in estimated cost from $260 million in 2004 to $1.9 billion in 2010.

That's the smell of money burningThe audit (and a briefer summary here) found the AOC “inadequately planned for the statewide case management project and did not analyze whether the project would be a cost-beneficial solution to the superior courts’ needs,” and couldn’t show that it had analyses and documentation to back up its key decisions on the project’s scope and direction.

The AOC didn’t structure its contract with Deloitte Consulting LLP, the project’s development vendor, to adequately control the project’s cost and scope, the audit found; over seven years, the AOC entered into 102 amendments that boosted the cost from $33 million to $310 million by last year. And the AOC still hasn’t obtained the funding needed for statewide deployment, the audit found; without full deployment to the 58 superior courts, the project’s value is diminished. The superior courts of Los Angeles and Sacramento counties have said they won’t even adopt the system unless their concerns about it are resolved.

William VickreyAOC chief William Vickrey issued a statement today saying his agency and the Judicial Council – the state judiciary’s policy-making body – largely agrees with the audit and already has moved to correct most of the problems.

“We have increased Judicial Council oversight of the project; expanded the participation of justices, judges, court administrators, attorneys, and justice partners; and created a project management office. We are also very close to completing an independent cost-benefit analysis,” Vickrey said.

More on that, and some rebuttal from a court workers’ union, after the jump…

Terence BruiniersThe Judicial Council during last year’s legislative budget hearings agreed to scale back the project, given the state’s enormous deficit. It’s now scheduled to be rolled out to only three courts in the next two years, but First District Court of Appeal Justice Justice Terence Bruiniers, who chairs the Judicial Council committee overseeing the project, said courts throughout the state eventually will have access to it.

“Californians will be able to file documents without visiting a courthouse, justice systems will be updated instantly whenever there is new information, and our various jurisdictions will be able to seamlessly communicate with each other electronically, increasing the efficiency of our state’s justice system,” he said – but with $332 million already invested, statewide rollout over 15 years will cost up to $1.3 billion.

Vickrey and Bruiniers noted the audit never questioned the need for such a system. “There seems to be little question that we’re on the right path,” Bruiniers said. “I think it’s important to emphasize that the audit does not recommend ending the project. We need to move on.”

Not so fast, says the Service Employees International Union, which counts court workers among its members.

Kristy Sermersheim“The findings of California’s independent auditor reinforce court workers’ calls to strengthen accountability and oversight of a runaway bureaucracy that has operated largely outside any checks and balances on its actions or spending,” Kristy Sermersheim, Chief Elected Officer for SEIU Local 521, said in a news release.

“California’s communities deserve better from those administering our judicial branch,” she said. “Already, staffing reductions and forced court closures have put roadblocks in the way of those seeking swift justice in our courtrooms. If the AOC continues on its path to pursue implementation of this cumbersome system at any cost, it will cost local courts tens of millions they can’t afford and cause more delays and case backlogs.”

Sermersheim said the union urges the AOC “to halt further spending on this out-of-control project until we can ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted and that our top priority for the judicial system – serving the public and keeping trial courts functioning – is fully funded.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.