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Courts’ case management system earns kudos and criticism

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Kim Dunning and Alan Carlson
Hon. Kim Dunning and Alan Carlson

When Robert Moss joined the Orange County bench eight years ago, he typically received “stacks of paper and big legal files” when a trial rolled around. He recalls digging through boxes and binders to find the documents he wanted. Although his caseload has grown from 350 to the current 750, it’s now more manageable, he says, thanks primarily to the case management system that is slowly being implemented in California’s state courts.

No more plowing through boxes of documents and files. With the push of a button or two on his computer, Moss can quickly locate the information he needs. “It saves me time and you can mold it to the way you do business,” he said.

“The idea that courts would function without paper is really revolutionary,” says Orange County Presiding Judge Kim Dunning. To which Moss says: “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Although the courts are a very long way from being paper-free, the Administrative Office of the Courts is implementing an electronic California Case Management System (CCMS) as part of an effort to standardize, with a single application, the way case types are managed in every court. Both court users and observers agree that it’s a Herculean undertaking.

And one that is not free of problems and critics. One court official said the system has become “a political piñata,” whose critics call the $1.3 billion price tag exorbitant and say the money should be diverted to help fund court operations. Judges on the Sacramento County bench complain the system was tested inadequately and crashes frequently. A legislative committee has ordered an audit of the system, which also was reviewed for the past six months by the state’s chief information officer.

“I think the audit is fine,” said Justice Ming Chin, chair of the Judicial Council’s advisory technology committee and the court’s most knowledgeable techie. “The more light we shine and the more facts we get out, the more we’ll advance the system. We cannot delay because it will save money in the long run.”

See related article:
Getting Lawyers to Participate

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the state had 70 different case management systems with 130 variations until recently; connections between courts, law enforcement and other pertinent agencies often is spotty. Each system must be individually supported and maintained, individually integrated with state agencies and justice partners, and individually updated to incorporate yearly legislative changes. In 2001, $21 million in seed money was appropriated to begin developing the new system.

In addition to providing judges with up-to-date information about parties appearing before them, AOC officials say the case management system will provide public access to court records across the state, regardless of jurisdiction, decrease the number of trips lawyers or their staff must make to the courthouse, and help self-represented litigants by providing enhanced information electronically.

“The ultimate goal is to have one computer system for all case types for all the courts,” explained Sheila Calabro, the AOC’s southern regional administrative director. “Judges will have the ability to make more informed decisions because they will have real-time information … For the public, the justice partner agencies, the courts, the state agencies we interact with, it really reaches out to everybody that the courts do business with and that does business with the courts.” Calabro hopes the system will be fully operational throughout the state by the end of 2016, but full implementation depends on the state budget.

The first of three products — V2 — handles criminal and traffic cases and is deployed in Fresno; the second — V3 — handles civil, probate, small claims and mental health and is used in six counties that handle about 25 percent of the state’s caseload; and the final version — V4— will add family and juvenile law and incorporate all previous capabilities into the latest technology. The V4 product will be adopted as part of a pilot project in San Diego and Ventura counties, which already use CCMS, and San Luis Obispo County. Ultimately, it will integrate with state and local law enforcement, the Department of Justice, the DMV, child support and social services offices, the Franchise Tax Board and others.

Gartner, a consulting firm hired by the AOC, estimated that CCMS will save courts $157 million per year when fully operational, with savings resulting from electronic filing, electronic storage of documents, electronic calendars, self-service payments and self-service case inquiries. “It’s the costs of litigation to the system that will be reduced,” Chin said. “This will make the entire court a lot more efficient. We can’t do more with less without technology.”

The Orange County court, where chief executive office Alan Carlson says the mantra is “online, not in line,” is the biggest success story. Already highly automated, it merged CCMS, used primarily by support staff, with a document management system (DMS) that primarily benefits judges. The DMS hold 100 million pages.

About one-third of its courtrooms use the systems. Although the courts have lost 200 of 1,800 positions in the last two years and have another 50 vacancies as a result of the economy, Carlson says they’ve managed to keep up with the thousands of filings. Otherwise, he says bluntly, “We’d be screwed … We’d be losing documents and files, we would have to postpone cases.” Eleven fulltime staff who used to keep track of all the paper submitted to the civil division have moved to data entry or elsewhere. A large warehouse near the airport is packed with documents as well as storage in the basement of the main courthouse. “We can’t afford to store all that paper,” says Presiding Judge Dunning.

Dunning is pushing for the next step — e-filing — already in use in complex civil matters. Although there is no rule of court requiring e-filing except in complex civil cases or matters where both parties agree, she believes electronic filing will result in fewer data entry problems, far fewer mistakes and “a higher quality of data.”

Nationally, only 15 to 20 percent of cases now are e-filed.

The final step will be the use of so-called smart forms, where data fields can be populated automatically and are retained in the program’s memory. Further, the program can interpret the validity of some data. As a result, data is complete, consistent and accurate. (Some courts already use smart forms.) Orange County has prototypes for 10 forms but they are not yet in use.

In Ventura County, about one-third of the judges use CCMS. “In general, it works very well,” says court executive Mike Planet. Its biggest benefit, he says, is “the functionality that allows the court to initiative cases into the system and track them through the life of the case.”

The system allows users to capture more information, custom tailor functions such as deadline notifications, and generate forms and orders electronically. “It’s a huge bonus to litigants … it’s an easier tool for judges to use and attorneys have information sooner,” Planet says. “It has a ripple effect.”

Not so fast, say judges on the Sacramento bench. Court leaders there, who have long complained that CCMS doesn’t work, announced last month they will host the system locally rather than use the Tempe, Ariz.-based server they believe is at the root of its performance problems. Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles host their databases locally already.

Judge Trena H. Burger-Plavan said the Sacramento courts pay $567,000 a year to use the CCMS database, but by switching servers, “we actually think we can do this for a comparable expense or less.” She said product testing was insufficient, some documents are not readable and can’t be uploaded or printed, and files sometimes cannot be accessed.

“Our judges have tried to use CCMS and were sensitive to dollars being thrown out the door and wasted,” Burger-Plavan said. “Our court alone has spent millions and millions that have come right out of our budget, that could have been spent on other things to improve access to justice.

“After spending so much money and it doesn’t work, we know we have a lemon and we need to fix it.”

Indeed, the $1.3 billion price tag attached to the system has raised eyebrows, particularly at the capitol, where the bipartisan Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted in February to ask the State Auditor to review the cost of CCMS. In fact, although the AOC pegged the cost at $1.3 billion, some estimates have exceeded $2 billion.

Committee member Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who requested the review, said she received complaints from many individuals. “It’s not so much the price tag as the fact there is no price tag,” Lowenthal said. “It was starting to look more like a blank check than a well-planned project … I think we’ll have a better chance of sorting things out once the audit is done.”

The California Chief Information Officer completed a six-month review of CCMS last month and acknowledged that the project has faced challenges “due to incomplete information, early lack of adherence to project management processes during the initiation stage and the size and complexity of the effort.

“Despite these setbacks and future risks, the OCIO believes the project is at a point where there is more reason to move forward than to stop the project.”

The CIO said that in order to be successful, the project must produce a viable V4 software product that meets the common business needs of the courts, develop a detailed deployment plan with specific responsibilities for supporting and maintaining the system, and strengthen the oversight of CCMS to ensure that courts adopt it. The report urges the AOC to not deploy the latest V4 system beyond the first court in the pilot program “until it is fully operational and utilizing live data.” It also recommends giving priority status for adoption of V4 in Sacramento once it is adequately tested and found to be workable.

The report also observed that while the benefits of CCMS to the court system as a whole “should take priority over the unique needs of individual courts,” it is critical to address the needs and concerns of the superior courts that “are the end users and customers of the CCMS.”

Court officials say the case management project is one of the largest IT undertakings in the state and is not out of line with the cost of other large projects. A similar system for child welfare services was estimated to cost $1.3 billion over 10 years; the Department of Finance FI$Cal project is expected to cost $1.62 billion over eight to 10 years; and the California Child Support Automation System was developed over eight years to the tune of $1.5 billion.

“I have no idea if $1.3 billion is reasonable or not,” says Orange County’s Carlson. “It’s complete speculation. No case management system is free.”

Lowenthal said judges from Los Angeles, Ventura and other counties support putting CCMS on hold and diverting funds to support court operations. “They think when courts are laying off employees and shutting their doors, it’s the wrong time to push forward with CCMS,” she said. “They don’t want to reduce access to the justice system. That’s not to knock the project, it’s just that priorities are at odds because of the economy.”

Sacramento’s Burger-Plavan also disputed the idea that judges need to have at their fingertips all available information about parties appearing before them. In criminal matters, she said she already has access to the information she needs. The Sacramento court developed a utility for $30,000 or less that provides that information and “works perfectly.”

“Do we need complete venue transparency?” Burger-Plavan asked. “The answer is unequivocally no … Two billion dollars is a lot of money for purposes that I don’t see that we need.”

But Planet, the Ventura court executive, believes it’s helpful for judges to know what’s going on in other counties. “The ability to share information between all the courts is invaluable,” he says.

Courts are complicated entities, involving thousands of people and thousands of cases. Using 70 different systems created a dysfunctional operation, Chin said, that had to be upgraded. “We really do have to do this,” he said. “There is no way we can continue to delay. I think the product is incredible and as more and more people use it, they will agree.”

Getting Lawyers to participate

The State Bar will undertake several efforts to educate members about the efficiencies the California Court Management System can provide for lawyers, their clients and the public who represent themselves in court. San Diego and Ventura county courts, which already use CCMS, will begin their move to a newer version later this year and the San Luis Obispo courts will adopt it for the first time. Outreach will focus on local bars in those counties.

“The State Bar’s Member Services Division believes the CCMS is the most significant member benefit for California attorneys and their clients in years,” said Starr Babcock, the bar’s senior executive for member services. “Better and more accurate access to the public administration of justice will be an immediate benefit as well as providing the platform for judges to access and rule on cases with greater speed and the internal assurance that the underlying filings are up to date and accurate. For the first time judges will also have access to case information from other courts regardless of where the case originated.”

The current 70 case management systems ultimately will be replaced with one system accessible by every state court. Parts of CCMS are now operational in several counties throughout the state and newer versions are expected to be online soon.

Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin believes the new system will revolutionize case management and save users millions of dollars. But, he adds, “we can’t have an electronic filing system that attorneys don’t use. We have to get the word out to lawyers that it’s the costs of litigation to the system that will be reduced. The education piece is very, very important.”

The bar’s member services office will sponsor an MCLE program at the Annual Meeting in September, to be moderated by Chin, that will inform judges and lawyers about “the significant advances in access to and the efficient administration of justice resulting from the full deployment of the CCMS,” Babcock said.

The numbers

$1.3 billion - $2 billion CCMS price tag
70 Different case management systems currently used by courts
$157 million per year Savings estimated by an AOC consulting firm
15 to 20 Percent of cases now are e-filed nationally
$1.5 billion California Child Support Automation System (CCSAS), developed over eight years
$1.62 billion Department of Finance FI$cal project, over 8-10 years
$1.3 billion Child Welfare Services Case Management System (CWS/CMS), over 10 years