California’s courts, minus computers


Imagine walking out of 2012 and into a courtroom from the pre-laptop era. Court clerks fill out dockets, then pull apart five carbon copies to hand to attorneys, who shake their heads in disgust and go back to their offices to re-enter the data in modern, usable formats. Hearings are delayed and frustrated plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers get back on the freeway after learning that the court’s official paper file has been misplaced and that there is no instantly retrievable digital version, so no possibility of proceeding. A social worker appears in Dependency Court seeking an order to protect a child, but the judge must wait two weeks to get a file from the next county because the family has moved and courts can’t send each other files at the click of a mouse, the way everyone in the real world can.

Or picture a criminal hearing at which paperless probation departments, feet planted firmly in the current decade, must revert to the past and print out their electronic reports so courts can physically place the paper versions in their files or scan or retype the data into the local court’s computer system because the court can’t receive reports electronically. Probation, parole, mental health, police, sheriff, corrections, out-of-state courts — they are linked and can instantaneously share information with one another, but not with a trial court in California. And trial courts can’t share information among themselves.

Domestic violence protective orders, instead of being automatically distributed to all courtrooms in real time, must make their way around the state via unlinked legacy systems, by email or by paper file, and judges as a consequence often are clueless about whether people appearing before them are dangerous — or in danger. Lawyers can’t track the progress of their cases through courts around the state without phone calls or costly court visits. They must send messengers to file documents and law students to check on motions. Prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers must create their own systems to keep a case on track because they can’t trust the court to have the latest motion, report or exhibit at the judge’s fingertips. While outside the courthouse private lawyers send one another files, motions, objections and bills from their smartphones, inside the building workers push file carts down corridors as if they were playing a scene from “Mad Men.”


Imagine the costs to the courts, the costs to the lawyers and, above all, the mounting costs to the average Californian who can’t sit down at his or her computer and get the most basic information about his or her case.

That’s the dismal state of technology — the dismal state of public service — in many California courts today due to years of neglect and what appears to be a discomfort among many judges and court workers with modern communication and data software. Even judges with systems that work are unconnected to other courts and justice agencies.

Now add to that the complications created by the state’s budget shortfalls. Imagine that same frustrated Californian waiting in line for five hours to get a hearing on a traffic case because court personnel were laid off and traffic cases are at the bottom of the priority list. Or imagine learning that the hearing has been set for nearly a year from now because courtrooms have closed and that’s the earliest date one is available. Even without the dangers created by courts that can’t communicate, a domestic violence victim is endangered because she has to wait days, perhaps weeks, just to get before a judge. Forget courthouses being able to get data on their laptops; Californians are finding it difficult to get court personnel on the phone because budget cuts have forced phone lines to go unmonitored for much of the day.

On Tuesday, California’s Judicial Council — the leaders of the state’s trial and appellate courts — voted to pull the plug on a statewide computer system that was designed to finally bring courts into the 21st century. There was very little choice: What would be the point in creating technologically competent courtrooms with shuttered doors? The council was right to shelve the Court Case Management System, use the funding to keep courts in operation and hope to salvage the system for use, or rebirth, or spare parts, in better economic times.

Some trial judges and court employee unions may be prone to see such a move as a great victory. If the judges view themselves as a rebel alliance and the Judicial Council as a heavy-handed evil empire, then the computer system they have long criticized is the Death Star — too costly, completely unnecessary and a symbol of the centralizing power wielded by the council at the expense of independent judges and superior courts.

They’re wrong. The abandonment of the case management system is a barely tolerable defeat — not for one side or the other in some obscure struggle for control between local trial courts and central administration, but for Californians who are entitled to, and have been paying for, a judicial system that serves their needs with modern facilities and accessible, up-to-date technology.

As it is, the great recession and the resulting budget crisis — and not some imagined mismanagement by the Judicial Council or its staff — have made it untenable to proceed for now with the case management system. And not proceeding now may well mean never proceeding because contractors cannot be put in suspended animation until finances improve. And that is a disaster because in courts (such as the Orange County Superior Court) in which early versions of the system are in place, the savings are impressive — as are the benefits to litigants, lawyers, prosecutors, the accused and others who count on a competent legal system. Similar savings to other courts, and similar benefits to other members of the public, are receding. The courts must ensure that when the economy improves and they once again try to enter the modern era, they have not just the technology but the sense of mission to get the job done.