California’s troubled Court Case Management System has taken another round of criticism, this time in a state audit that faults the project’s cost controls, management and oversight.

The project is intended to unify case management for the superior courts located in all 58 counties, but has run into uncertain funding, political infighting and interoperability problems since planning for the system began in 2003.

Project costs have skyrocketed over the years, from $260 million in 2004 to $1.9 billion in 2010, according to an examination of the computer system released Tuesday, Feb. 8 by California’s independent auditor. Oversight, project planning and a funding plan came too late in the project’s life, said the Bureau of State Audits’ report.

The Administrative Office of the Courts initiated the project, and says when complete — a full rollout is slated for 2015, seven years behind schedule — it will improve the timeliness, accuracy and uniformity of the courts’ data.

But the state auditor said the courts office only studied the propriety of the system in 2007, four years after the project was started. By then, the Office of the Courts “had already made a significant commitment to the statewide case management project as it had spent a total of $217 million as of June 2007, developed two interim systems, and deployed or was deploying these systems at seven superior courts.”

The auditor faulted the Office of the Courts for keeping an incomplete paper trail of key decisions, and for not gaining buy-in from each county and judges. For example, some smaller courts have complained the case management system is inflexible and attempts to be one-size-fits-all.

The auditor recommended that the courts office develop a “realistic funding strategy” for the case management system, do a cost-benefit analysis and address the courts’ concerns.

Last week in a column published in The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White wrote that the system is “a black hole into which well over a billion tax dollars are being dumped at a time those funds are urgently needed to keep our trial courts open and operating.” In a companion piece, attorney Christopher B. Dolan argued that the case management system was “a dramatic leap forward” and “a big improvement in computer access to court records.”

The Administrative Office of the Courts’ Judicial Council responded to the audit Tuesday Feb. 8, saying that the office agree with most of the recommendations and had already adopted practices that will address them.

“Most of the findings in the report refer to past practices in the oversight of the project,” said William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the courts. The office has improved oversight, garnered more input from stakeholders and started a project management office.

The council said because of the state’s fiscal crisis the case management system will be deployed to only three courts in the next two years.

A review last year by the California Technology Agency, the state CIO’s department, determined that work on the case management system should continue, but that the project needed a cost cap and a comprehensive plan to ensure the courts actually use it.

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor