Judges Revolt Against Their Own Bureaucracy

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Not a lot was known about the California judiciary’s central bureaucracy outside the judiciary itself until the spectacular abandonment in March of a billion-dollar computer system under development for 10 years.

But the failure of the Court Case Management System (CCMS), coupled with massive budget cuts, put the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) under the microscope and exposed to public scrutiny an uprising by judges against the system that governed them.

The AOC provides administrative services in areas of budget, fiscal services, assignments of retired judges, technology, education, legal advice, human resources, legislative advocacy and research for the Judicial Council, which is chaired by the Supreme Court chief justice. It is the policy making body of California state courts.

The office has been a powerful tool of the chief justice for two decades and has been the subject of withering attacks by judges in recent years. It is at the heart of judicial politics.

Lawmakers voted in June to strip the council of its ability to spend money on projects like CCMS without legislative approval. They also limited the council’s budgetary authority in other ways, to the delight of dissidents organized as the Alliance of California Judges.

CCMS was supposed to unify myriad computer systems in all 58 Superior Courts, enable the public to look at important documents and allow law enforcement real-time access to critical information. But the project was poorly planned from the outset, according to the California State Auditor. Her 2011 report said the AOC had not analyzed whether the project would be a cost-beneficial solution, did a poor job of controlling costs, made critical decisions for unclear reasons, didn’t contract for outside oversight, didn’t address quality problems and failed to secure adequate funding to complete the project.

Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, who took office in January 2011, appointed a group of judges called the Strategic Evaluation Committee, to review how the AOC operates. The report, which was released last month, characterized the office as an “oversized,” “top-heavy,” “unwieldy organization” with “deficient” “internal management processes.” The result: “a culture of control” in an agency lacking credibility.

The report suggested the AOC stick to core functions.  

The chief justice posted it for comments. As of Wednesday, the verdict was nearly unanimous. Only 15 of the 168 comments received (mostly from judges) were against adopting the committee’s recommendations for reform.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Huge Majority of Judges Support Pushing on with Drastic Reform (by Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News)

It's Court v. Court after Demise of Judicial Computer System (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

Judicial Council Lobbyists Fought Spending Limits Up to Final Vote (by Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News)

Auditor Review of CCMS (State Auditor) (pdf)

Legislature Puts Limits on Judicial Council (by Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News)

Report on the Administrative Office of the Courts (Strategic Evaluation Committee) (pdf)

IT Project Sinks in Sea of Criticism (by Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News)

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