Disorder in the Courts over Billion-Dollar Construction Program

Monday, August 27, 2012

When lawmakers stripped the California Judicial Council of its authority in June to spend any more money on a failed, half-built billion-dollar computer system without legislative approval, it dealt a heavy blow to the state judiciary’s central bureaucracy.

For critics of the council, including the Alliance of California Judges and Judicial Council Watcher, it was a measure of vindication in their ongoing battle with what they consider to be an autocratic group of overseers who are out of touch with rank-and-file judges and the real needs of the court system.

On Friday, those critics got another bit of a boost from the release of an audit by Pegasus-Global Holdings, Inc. that had some harsh words for the council’s decade-long management of court construction. While acknowledging that the council court construction program “has essentially fulfilled its primary mandates,” the report detailed fundamental problems with transparency, lack of uniformity, a non-existent document control system and a poor organizational structure.

Most importantly, it said, in a variety of ways, that no one was in charge of overseeing the vast array of projects, which it called “a lack of ownership.” The report warned that the program cannot continue to its next phase of development operating this way.

The audit’s recommendations will be presented to the Judicial Council’s Court Facilities Working Group next month, at which time 30 new courthouse construction projects will be reviewed.

Since the court reorganization of 2002—which transferred court planning and construction from local to state level—the Office of Court Construction and Management (OCCM) has initiated work on 59 projects budgeted at $6.6 billion. It has completed eight of those projects, valued at $300 million.

In a program as huge as this one, there is usually a “ramp-up” in which the foundation is laid for planning, staffing, and setting of “policies, procedures and practices.”

The Judicial Council didn’t have time for those niceties.

The court construction program was initiated at the same time the Judicial Council was transferring all the trial courts from local to state control and operating under a mandate to immediately commence work on both the program and project level. The compressed time frame did not allow for a ramp-up, the report said.

“While the number of completed projects through the first ten years of the Program sounds low, to have initiated and completed that many projects representing that level of investment is an accomplishment not typically expected for a megaprogram the size of the Court Capital Construction program,” the report said.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the council, has been at the center of a whirlwind since being sworn in last year. Huge budget cuts by the governor and Legislature are taking a heavy toll on judicial services, the court’s billion-dollar computer project has been shut down, a grass-roots alliance of judges has confronted the chief justice on policy, and the State Auditor has questioned the courts’ management by the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

And now the construction program has been damned with faint praise.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Audit Critical of CA Court Construction Office (by Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News)

Audit of Court Construction Program Released (Judicial Council)

Pegasus Global Holdings Report Is Unexpectedly Released (Judicial Council Watcher)

California Courthouse Capital Program Management Audit Reports (Judicial Council of the Courts) (pdf)

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