California's judicial system -- with 170 courts spread over 158,000 square miles in 58 counties -- dwarfs that of many countries in size and complexity. Since this sprawling system costs California more than $1.5 billion a year, even small increases in efficiency can mean tremendous savings. And efficiency was a problem.

A 1991 report by the Commission on the Future of the California Courts pointed out many problems inherent in this cumbersome system and said that technology would be the key to improving it. "The courts have it within their power to transform their relationship with technology," said the report. "If they do not, their inefficiency will at best frustrate the public. At worst, disputants will seek out private dispute resolution forums ...."

Since then, the state has taken some major steps to establishing a statewide judicial information infrastructure. As with most technology projects, good planning and design are important, and California placed its emphasis on laying a firm foundation.

ALTERNATIVE FUTURES

In December 1991, the Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the courts, formed the Commission on the Future of the California Courts. According to the commission's final report, its method of operation was a "planning process fairly novel in the nation's courts at the time, one known as 'alternative futures planning.'" This method was designed to embrace "conventional forecasting, trend analysis and scenario construction" to help decision makers "anticipate what the future might be in order to propose what it should be."

"The commission looked into the court system and where we should be in the year 2020," said Justice Gary Hastings of the California Court of Appeal, 2nd District. "One result of the commission was a report that suggested a body be set up to address where technology should be."

The Judicial Council accepted the 2020 report and established the Court Technology Task Force (CTECH) for the purpose of formulating the "design, charge and process for a permanent governing body that would oversee the planning for and implementation of technology in California's trial and appellate courts."

According to Ron Titus, manager of the Office of Court Technology and Information (OCTI) for the Judicial Council, who is also principle staff of the task force, "Our first effort was to try to get a handle on the level of technology. We went to the National Center for State Courts and asked for good courts to go see. There were little pockets of technology in California, but the state as a whole wasn't very advanced."

Members of CTECH traveled to other states -- including Utah and Washington -- to study successful court technology systems and management practices. They did short courses at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT, and attended seminars and trade shows.

The result was a report containing general strategic guidelines for the courts as well as specific tasks and goals. Then, Judicial Council Rule 1033 was issued in November 1994, which established the Court Technology Standing Advisory Committee, chaired by Justice Hastings. The committee is charged with achieving the objectives defined by the task force.

It soon became apparent, however, that in order to make further progress, the committee needed to know more about the existing state of technology in the courts. At the same time, the courts in each county were facing a deadline imposed by the Judicial Council's Rule 991 which mandated that by Sept. 1, 1996, "the trial courts within each county shall develop a common plan for countywide implementation of information and other technologies." The council allocated $2 million to help counties develop those plans.

STATEWIDE COURT

TECHNOLOGY INVENTORY

"We had no idea what courts had what technology," noted Hastings. "We figured there would be no way to allocate [technology] between the counties, and decided that if we held the money and provided services to them, we could probably get more

David Aden  | 
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.