Rising out of the ashes of a failed IT system for California's trial courts, three private companies have been chosen as premier providers in the lucrative business of selling software to the far-flung courts of the biggest state in the nation.
The move to private vendors comes in the aftermath of the crash-and-burn of a half-billion-dollar, publicly funded software project driven by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the central bureaucracy that sits above the trial courts.
Called the Court Case Management System, the software was abandoned last year after a host of courts rejected it as cumbersome, labor-intensive and crash-prone. In addition, state legislators were highly critical of the project's daily drain of hundreds of thousands of dollars from public coffers.
Sacramento Superior Court -- one of the few courts that installed CCMS only to became a leading critic of the software -- announced last week that three private companies have qualified to sell what is likely to be many millions of dollars' worth of case management programming to California's 58 trial courts.
Sacramento County and Santa Clara County Superior Court have taken the lead within a group of IT workers from 13 trial courts called the California Information Technology Managers Forum. The forum also includes tech staff from courts in Orange, Humboldt, Alameda, Mariposa, Riverside, Fresno, Kings, Kern, Merced, San Diego and San Mateo counties, according to a list provided by the administrative office.
They vetted and OK'd Texas-based Tyler Technologies, New Mexico-based Justice Systems Inc. and Thomson Reuters' LT Court Tech.
As an example of the sums involved, San Luis Obispo Superior Court, a relatively small court in California, recently agreed to pay Tyler $3.1 million to buy the Odyssey case management system that allows for electronic filing. Tyler was chosen despite pricing its software substantially higher than the competing bidders, based on the company's willingness to sell rights to the system outright rather than licensing them on a yearly basis.
Tyler has been winning a big number of contracts in the last couple years with courts in Texas, Indiana, Nevada and now California.
Robert Oyung, the chief information officer of Santa Clara County, said the vetting of the software vendors was a collaborative effort by the technology forum members. He said all courts were invited to review the top six proposers, but eight courts were responsible for rating, or scoring, the applicants.
Sacramento Judge Trena Burger-Plavan noted that staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) also jumped into the scoring.
"In terms of the scoring," said Burger-Plavan, "I know that the AOC participated and all courts were able to provide feedback on the vendor proposals and demonstrations that were presented."
She said the forum's evaluators were anonymous. "Each submitted votes after receiving input from participants throughout all the courts and the AOC."
Judge James Herman of Santa Barbara, the former chair of the CCMS internal committee on the governing Judicial Council and a consistent promoter of CCMS, is now the chair of the Judicial Council's technology committee and also chair of the committee's technology task force.
He said in an interview that the individual trial courts don't have to go with any of the three chosen ones. The trial courts can also use a model RFP, an invitation to bid on a project.
"This is an RFP that all courts can use, are not required to use, but can save the expense of building your own RFP," said Herman. "Smaller courts can look to this as a template."
As with the old CCMS system, he said courts will still be able to choose a distant, common server to host court information. "Most courts might like offsite so they don't have to buy the hardware. A group of courts could also work in consortia and share a server."
During the failed effort to develop a uniform, statewide software, some courts became distrustful of storing their data on a remote site. Tech staff in San Diego, Orange and Santa Barbara counties all expressed reservations about giving up local control over court information.
Herman also stressed the need for buying new software -- quickly.
"There are about six courts who have a need to replace their case management systems. We have a lot that are 30 years old. We have situations where courts are still on county mainframe systems and counties are saying we're upgrading our mainframes and the cost will be 'x,' which the courts can't afford."
Some judges, while supportive of the efforts by the trial court-based technology forum, are skeptical of court officials and other judges with past connections to the controversial CCMS project, some of whom are on Herman's task force and will be trying to convince lawmakers to fund the new software systems.
"I can just imagine the Legislature breaking out in laughter when they say, 'Let's see, you have the $2 billion boondoggle and the same ship of people are here asking for more money for technology,' " said Judge Andy Banks of Orange County Superior Court.
His court currently uses an older version of CCMS, and has not shown any inclination toward switching to any of the new vendors. While Orange County has been held up as a shining example of CCMS' success as an IT system -- and the court is currently leading a push toward electronic filing in California -- a survey of court personnel was highly critical of the software.
"It depends on who you talk to," said Banks. "There are those people deeply wedded to the AOC and to the idea that CCMS is really a Ferrari in the garage, and if we could fuel it it would be wonderful. I would say the majority of judges in Orange County don't think it's a great thing, a lot of our clerks don't like it. But the official position of the people in power is to promote it and say, 'We think it's great,' and then there are the rest of us who say this thing has been a boondoggle and a waste of money."
Herman with the Judicial Council's technology committee and task force assured, "Every member of that task force was carefully selected because they represented an important constituency in the branch."
In an email, he added, "I want to emphasize that there is limited and dwindling funding for technology. We can't keep courthouse doors open without functioning case management systems and more efficient business practices. And both the executive and legislative branches have made it clear that there will be no technology funding without a technology plan in collaboration with the courts."
Judge Steve White of Sacramento said he supports the trial court-based forum, separate from the technology committee. He also commended Oyung in Santa Clara County and Heather Pettit, Sacramento County's technology manager, who are leading members of the forum.
"Many courts tried to do this from the beginning and they were told they wouldn't get funding and had to go the AOC way or they wouldn't have anything. Because it wasn't allowed to work, it was a factor in the debacle that CCMS turned out to be," said White, who is head of the Alliance of California Judges, a reform group that often compared CCMS to the Titanic -- enormous, expensive and doomed.
But he said if courts are putting proposals together on their own, there should be no problem.
"It doesn't present a problem if the AOC isn't driving the agenda and this is done by the local courts," he said. "In a sense they popped into the side car as we put this together. We have very talented people like Heather and Rob who really know how courts work and what courts need. They have advanced initiatives that are entirely different from CCMS because they're affordable and they'll work. As long as the AOC is riding in the sidecar and not driving it, it doesn't matter to us. But if they are playing the role of central planners instead of just getting out of the way, that's when it's a problem."
Maria Dinzeo is a journalist with the Courthouse News Service.
This story was originally published by the Courthouse News Service. Image courtesy of iStockphoto.