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How California Court System Wasted Millions

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The California court system had to pay up for trying to limit timely media access to lawsuit records, says Dan Walters. (Shutterstock)
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California’s state government offers many — too many — examples of botched attempts to make itself more efficient by adopting high-tech data systems.

The current poster child for information technology projects that either failed to work or have become bottomless pits of expense is something called FI$Cal, supposedly a comprehensive state government finance control system. Originally begun in 2005 and costing nearly $1 billion to date, FI$Cal has yet to function as envisioned.

Spectacular IT Failures

Prior to the FI$Cal, the most spectacular IT failure was another comprehensive project, managed — or mismanaged — by the state Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Launched in 2002, it was supposed to be a centralized management system for the millions of civil and legal cases handled by the courts each year.

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

The project was abandoned a decade later after $530 million had been spent on unsuccessful efforts to make it work. But one aspect of the debacle continued for another decade and only this month was finally concluded.

The former Ventura County clerk, Michael Planet, who had been one of the IT project’s strongest backers and an early user, was forced to revert to paper filings when it was abandoned but continued to insist that lawsuits and other filings would not be made public until they had been processed.

That policy ran counter to a long-standing practice that once filed, lawsuits immediately became public documents and Courthouse News, a publication that specializes in legal matters, decided to fight Planet on the issue, eventually going to court itself.

The Judicial Council, whose members set policy for court operations, backed Planet by passing a rule saying documents were not public until processed and hired a law firm to battle Courthouse News for another decade.

Court Fought Disclosures

As Courthouse News reported this month, “Filed in 2011, the saga of Courthouse News v. Planet included three trips to the Ninth Circuit. The last one, handed down in 2020, is referred to as Planet III, and it said the First Amendment right of access attaches to new complaints when they are filed.

“This matched up with an age-old tradition in American courts where news reporters checked the new complaints at the clerk’s counter. The complaints were in a box or bin or cart where the intake clerks set them as soon as they came across the counter. Reporters checked the box at various times during the day but most often around closing time to make sure they saw all the day’s new cases.”

The 2020 decision, written by Judge Kim Wardlaw, declares, “The free press is the guardian of the public interest, and the independent judiciary is the guardian of the free press. These values hold especially true where, as here, the impetus for (Courthouse News’) efforts to obtain newly filed complaints is its interest in timely reporting on their contents.”

It took two more years, however, for the final chapter to be written. This month, the Judicial Council sent a check to Courthouse News for $2.9 million to cover its legal bills for fighting the case — money that ultimately comes from the state’s taxpayers. And that doesn’t count what the Judicial Council spent for its own attorneys.

A Win for Transparency

By pursuing the case, Courthouse News struck a blow for open records and freedom of the press. By stubbornly insisting that Planet’s position was correct, even changing its regulations, the Judicial Council wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, given how the managers of the court system also blew more than a half-billion bucks on an inoperable IT project.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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