Californians should be ashamed of the “tech gold rush” exploiting their courts

ImageI became apoplectic when I read “Tech Gold Rush Strikes California Courts” in the Courthouse News Service. It tells the sad and maddening tale of how California spent half a billion dollars on a Deloitte-led expedition into the woods of the mythical man month, and then pulled the plug in 2012. Even more maddening, however, is the story of what’s happening now, a year later.

The system Deloitte was supposed to build was a centralized, comprehensive IT system for California’s court system. After a decade of planning and development but few results, the Judicial Council (the state courts’ governing body) pulled the plug in 2012. Without a central system, now all 58 of California’s counties are left to fend for themselves—and none has the cash to build anything itself. As a result, unsurprisingly, those counties are turning to government contractors. Specifically, they’re turning to three out-of-state government IT contractors that already sell case management software for courts. Also unsurprisingly, it’s expensive.

I could live with some sticker shock from a one-time contract to implement this software, but the cost is far higher than that. These vendors won’t just get paid once. For no good reason, they’ll get the right to build a toll booth and collect additional rent from California’s taxpayers:

The deals have three basic financial components, licensing and installation for millions of dollars, yearly upkeep for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, a golden egg, the right to charge lawyers a fee, generally around $5, for every document electronically filed. 

In one big Southern California court, for example, about 750,000 documents are projected to be filed this year. That’s in Orange County’s civil section alone. Multiplied by a $5 fee, the flow of money would amount to $3 million a year.

Why are our courts failing so badly to innovate? The set of options shouldn’t be limited to which vendor to select. If the vendors are all selling garbage, don’t buy the garbage—build something better. And by better, I don’t mean go ask Accenture to pick up the ball from Deloitte. I mean engage the public. Silicon Valley has all the resources California needs to get this right. Did anyone even ask for help?

More importantly, perhaps, the state should refuse to allow vendors to erect toll booths that deprive the public of access to justice. These tolls are shameful. We live in an era of ubiquitous computing. Computing power and storage are incredibly inexpensive, and the barriers to building software have been lowered greatly. Stated bluntly, a $5 per document filing fee is unconscionable.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one enraged by these developments. I managed to start a conversation in the Twitterverse, with many bright minds in the legal technology community participating.

Now I’m working with others to channel this collective rage into productive energy. Stay tuned for developments.

Author: Ansel Halliburton

Ansel Halliburton is a lawyer specializing in entrepreneurship and intellectual property litigation.

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