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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Court case management system
gets harsh review from state auditor

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Faced with a blistering audit of its case management system, California court leaders accepted five of the state auditor’s key recommendations, including developing a realistic funding strategy for the project, whose price tag continues to swell.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said the Court Case Management System (CCMS) faces significant challenges because of poor project management, including inadequate planning, a failure to analyze whether the system would provide a cost-beneficial solution to the needs of the superior courts and inaccurate cost estimates, starting from $260 million in 2004 and escalating to $1.9 billion by 2010. The Judicial Council puts that figure at $1.3 billion.

Further, the Administrative Office of the Courts needs to win greater support from the superior courts and do a better job of obtaining independent oversight, the auditor said.

“The statewide case management project is at risk of not being able to obtain the funding needed for statewide deployment,” the audit concluded. “ . . . Because funding for this project is uncertain, it is unclear whether the AOC will be able to obtain the $1 billion deployment cost or the additional $391 million needed to support CCMS through fiscal year 2015-16 when the AOC has estimated that the CCMS will be fully deployed.”

Although the audit did not recommend that CCMS be shelved, it did urge the AOC to thoroughly analyze the costs and benefits of the system, address the concerns of local courts, get better cost estimates and contract for outside review of the system before deployment. Perhaps most important, the audit recommended: “To address the funding uncertainty facing CCMS, the AOC should work with the Judicial Council, legislature and governor to develop an overall strategy for CCMS that is realistic, given the current fiscal crisis facing the state.”

The findings led to quick adoption by the Judicial Council of five recommendations and a promise of increased oversight. “We are not disputing the auditor’s findings,” said Justice Terence L. Bruiniers, who chairs a Judicial Council committee that oversees CCMS. “We may have some disagreement with the tone, but we fully accept the findings and recommendations.”

The audit also drew the wrath of two southern California lawmakers who called on Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to fire William Vickery, the administrative director of the courts, for what they said was mismanagement of CCMS. Assembly members Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, also criticized Vickery for ignoring warnings about the project’s cost overruns.

“Mr. Vickery’s bewildering dismissal of sound advice has resulted in the kind of debacle that, in any other setting, already would have resulted in termination,” wrote Lowenthal, who requested the state audit, and Lara. “The fact that news of his staggering mismanagement comes during a deep budget crisis only underscores the need for his departure.”

In a statement, Cantil-Sakauye said she considered the lawmakers’ letter “a serious attempt to interfere with judicial branch governance and my ability to evaluate the AOC management team. Moreover, this letter is a profound diversion from the difficult issues that our branch is trying to resolve.” She went on to praise Vickery as “an invaluable resource” with whom she is working to address Gov. Brown’s proposed $200 million reduction in the courts’ budget.

CCMS is designed to support courts of all sizes through one central technology operation. Interim versions of the project are in use at seven trial courts and process more than 25 percent of the state’s civil cases. In legislative budget hearings last year, the Judicial Council agreed to scale back deployment of the system to just three courts over the next two years.

The Alliance of California Judges, a group founded in 2009 that favors local court management and reordered financial priorities, is one of the project’s severest critics. And, according to the audit, some of the superior courts either refuse to implement CCMS or say they don’t need it.

In a survey of seven courts that now use CCMS on an interim basis, the auditor reported that two reported challenges and difficulties and are reluctant to fully implement the system. Los Angeles County, which uses the civil system in four courtrooms at one location, “believes that the AOC’s plan for CCMS has been overly ambitious” and “extremely risky,” the audit reported. Los Angeles and Sacramento have asserted they will not adopt CCMS until their concerns are resolved.

Although three smaller courts that use the system said they were satisfied with CCMS, the audit found that four larger courts reported difficulties, including performance issues and problems with the process for fixing defects, and had to hire additional staff. 

“The majority of the courts believe their current case management systems will serve them for the foreseeable future and users of interim systems expressed reservations about using CCMS,” the auditors found. “Some of these users say they will not adopt CCMS until the AOC makes significant improvements in the areas of performance, stability and project management.”

Successful implementation of CCMS “will require the AOC to foster support from the superior courts more effectively,” the audit concluded.

Bruiniers said Los Angeles has not “categorically said they don’t want to (deploy) CCMS,” but he said the courts there want assurances that the system will work. Once CCMS is implemented in three test counties — Ventura, San Luis Obispo and San Diego — it will take some time to iron out inevitable bugs, Bruiniers said. “If we can get the system up and running and working in a real world environment for those courts, I suspect a great deal of skepticism and concern should be alleviated.”

Meanwhile, he said, some courts are struggling with outdated or unsupported systems and spending money on short-term fixes becomes problematic, Bruiniers said. “They’re getting by . . . but do you spend for an interim solution that is not going to be compatible with the long-term goal?”

Auditors said the AOC’s cost estimates have been consistently inaccurate. In 2004, the AOC’s earliest available cost estimate was $260 million. Although the AOC now says the system will cost $1.3 billion, the auditor boosted that figure to $1.9 billion, a figure it said does not include both the $557 million “that has been spent or will be spent for the criminal system and the support costs for the civil system and CCMS until CCMS is fully deployed.”

The discrepancy in the cost estimates is the result of differences of opinion on what constitutes project and nonproject costs. The courts do not include operations and maintenance costs for CCMS as part of the project cost, said AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa. They also do not include the “nonproject” costs for development, deployment and maintenance of earlier test systems that eventually will be replaced. Nonproject operations and maintenance costs account for the difference, Carrizosa said.

The fluid nature of the California economy makes creation of a funding strategy difficult, but what is clear, Bruiniers said, is that the AOC has “to completely revise and rethink our deployment strategy.”

Vickery said most of the shortcomings in the auditor’s report refer to past oversight practices. The AOC has taken steps to increase the participation of judges and court users and completed a cost-benefit analysis last month, he said. The office will provide updated cost estimates to the legislature, work with the courts to address their concerns and develop a “realistic funding strategy,” he said.

The cost-benefit analysis, conducted by Grant Thornton LLP, estimates that once CCMS is fully in place, it will save California $300 million annually. On the other hand, cancelling the project would produce a negative return on investment of $270.5 million, reflecting money already spent that cannot be recovered.

The analysis also found that if CCMS is adopted only in southern California, excluding Los Angeles, it will produce a return on investment of $358 million through 2021. The business efficiencies would be less, however.

In the end, both Vickery and Bruiniers said auditors did not question the need for CCMS, which they say increases the court system’s efficiency. “There seems to be little question 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.”