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Death of CCMS Leaves Technology Vacuum

By Jon Streeter
President, State Bar of California

Jon StreeterOn March 27th, after an all-day hearing, the Judicial Council made a difficult but ultimately necessary decision to abandon any further work on the California Case Management System (CCMS). That was the wise and prudent thing to do, given the level of political controversy surrounding CCMS, but in my view the issue of statewide automation within the court system will not go away. Ultimately, the issue will have to be dealt with in some form.

Court administration, like law itself, is anchored in what has been done in the past. Anyone who has actually gone to a clerk’s office in one of our county courts within the last few years can see clear evidence of this. These offices bear all the hallmarks of business environments from decades ago. Everything revolves around the flow of paper, from the old-style method of intake – complete with that familiar thumping sound made by mechanical file stamps – to the carts that are used to deliver paper from place to place, to the mode of handling confidential records in sealed envelopes (whose seal may or may not remain secure), to the need for and the complexities of managing physical storage space.

During discussions about court funding, Legislators often ask – properly so – what the judicial branch has done to find efficiencies in its operations. Automation would eliminate many of the "back-office" inefficiencies that have always plagued our systems of manual intake, central filing and hand-distribution to the chambers of assigned judges. Those of us in the trenches who are fighting for improved funding for the judiciary know full well that unless the branch somehow finds the discipline to root out these inefficiencies, the current crisis in court funding can never be effectively resolved and will just continue recurring in down economic times.

The heart of the issue here, though, is not money but uniform access to justice for our citizens statewide. CCMS is a system that would finally have done away with the vestiges of balkanization in our courts. Over the last few decades, the California court system has evolved from one in which we had 58 totally separate court systems, each with its own idiosyncratic rules and regulations – page limitations on briefs, size of pleadings and fonts, deadlines for filing, number of copies required, hours of operation for clerks' offices – to one that is, in the main, standardized across the state. E-filing is the last frontier in our quest to achieve uniform standards of justice statewide.

Unfortunately, the aspiration that we should have uniform standards of justice statewide has never been fully accepted in a few areas of the state. Some counties – particularly the large ones, with enough sheer mileage in their highway systems to generate plenty of county-based support for their courts – have plenty of resources to fend for themselves. These counties can and will buy their own automation systems (or add to the ones they have already) and, naturally, they have little interest in what happens elsewhere.

A much underappreciated aspect of CCMS would have been dramatically improved transparency. Some of the sharpest critics of CCMS, of course, came from some judges who complained that “we do not want this system,” as if they have some kind of proprietary stake in the judicial system that is superior to that of the citizens who use the courts.  For these judges, the emphasis has often been on the autonomy of county courts. But what is often left unsaid when the subject of autonomy comes up is that CCMS would have brought a level of transparency – and with it accountability – that these judges have never had.

In all of the din surrounding the controversial price tag for CCMS, few people seemed to appreciate that in return for its large investment, the judicial branch would save $300 million per year. I've been visiting many counties around the state this year and the vast majority of the lawyers I've talked to "get it" on this basic point. They see the value of statewide e-filing to their practices and most importantly to their clients, and many make the obvious point that "sometimes you have to spend money to save money."

The sad irony is that the incremental impact of killing CCMS, in sheer dollar terms, will achieve a modest savings next year (around $13 million), which will hardly put a dent in the massive shortfall we will experience next year if the  "triggers" built into this year's budget are activated (which will in turn trigger equally massive layoffs). Labor fought hard against CCMS out of understandable concern about job losses, but in the end the best protection against job losses is in improved court funding overall. CCMS is a side issue to that much larger problem.

For some observers, the end of CCMS, and with it the abandonment of hundreds of millions already invested to develop the system, is a cause for celebration. But any celebration will be short-lived. The decades-long drive for uniform standards of justice statewide will continue. The public's right to access to twenty-first century justice cannot be denied. And those of us fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with labor to ensure better funding for the courts will ultimately win the argument that the best route to job security for court workers is to protect against further debilitating cuts, not to cannibalize the future health of the branch.