Monday, March 07, 2011

The Play's The Thing

Over the past two decades, I have written around 200 columns. You think it’s easy knocking out a column every month? (A knockout of a column is a different story.) Take it from me, getting in the ring with words is not for scaredy cats. It is frightful and wearing to throw wild punches at frenzied words dancing and feinting with bewildering moves that throw me off balance. I 'm often ready to throw in the towel, but at the last minute I get my bearings with an idea that I personalize as my trainer. I get in the ring and go the distance, usually to a draw.

The idea for a previous column (Jan. 10, 2011, Profiles in Courage-the Sequel) came to me at the opera, Rigoletto. (The opera serves as a welcome exit from the boxing metaphors.) I wrote about a plucky woman I met in the men’s room of the Music Center. Incidentally, after the column was published, I learned from a superior court judge that the courageous woman was his wife. Just a week ago, my wife and I and dear friends were at the opera again for a Sunday matinee performance of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy). Keeping in mind Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, I did not expect anything as dramatic to happen again. It didn’t. On this Sunday, the men’s room was boring, and it is not a good place to tarry. Neither is lurking near the women’s room to see if some man would sneak in. Not a possibility. DMV lines move swiftly in comparison.

During the intermission I heard people complaining that the opera lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes. That meant they and we would not be home in time to view the beginning of the Academy Awards show. Oh dear! And then an idea hit me. Should there not be an awards ceremony each year to honor the best performances and decisions that come out of our legal system? But giving out “Oscars” would be so … so derivative. Instead, the winners would receive an “Oliver.”

I devised a list of categories eligible for awards: a dramatic role for trial lawyers (I rejected creating an award for best comedy judge and lawyer for obvious reasons, though I had some candidates in mind); supporting roles for law firm associates and judicial research attorneys; behind-the-scene roles for secretaries, assistants and paralegals; writing awards for briefs (comparable to original screenplays) and judicial opinions (comparable to screenplays adopted from another source).

And then I became stymied for the award that would parallel "Best Picture." Pardon my bias, but I wanted this award to reflect some great spectacle in the judiciary. I needed something that contained drama, conflict and tension something like The Social Network. I was at a loss. The Fighter had no appropriate counterpart in the court system, and I was ready to throw in the towel. (Sorry.) And then I found a way to solve my dilemma. It was in the very opera I was attending, Il Turco in Italia.

The opera involves a playwright who is looking for ideas for his next comedy. Only he cannot come up with something that is original or novel. He visits a gypsy camp where he hopes to find material and inspiration. He watches a drama unfold, which becomes his play, much like my writing about the lady in the men’s room. We need not repeat here the events in the opera because they involve multiple love affairs, a Turkish prince, his slave paramour, an unfaithful wife and mistaken identities. I cannot speak for the legal profession, but the plot of the opera bears no resemblance to the California judiciary … as far as I can determine.

I decided to use the device of the playwright in the opera to find material for my column. I would simply write about dramatic events unfolding in the judiciary. From this I might get a handle on what would qualify for the counterpart of "Best Picture" in the Academy Awards. The King's Speech was a wonderful movie, certainly deserving an Oscar, but my choice was The Social Network. But what in the judiciary could be comparable to the tension, the animosity, recriminations and rancor involving a billion dollar company?

I was ready to exit center stage (better than a boxing metaphor here) when it hit me like a perfect high C. It was right in front of my face the drama involving the Court Case Management System (CCMS) alleged to cost $2 billion or more. The state auditor had sharply criticized the management of the project and the oversight of its costs. Some legislators and judges were appalled by the way the project was handled, and a number of judges called for abolishment of the entire project. Even Justice Bruiniers, Chair of the Judicial Council's CCMS Executive Committee, appeared to agree with most of the auditor's critiques. But he and others have taken strong positions against abandoning the project.

Shortly after the auditor's scathing report, the Judicial Council received a cost benefit analysis from a prestigious audit tax firm that concluded the "statewide case management system … has an essential role in the operation of our state justice system" and, when in operation, will save the state $300 million a year.

A recent epistolary exchange between Justice Bruiniers and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger highlighted great differences in perception about the manner in which the project was presented to judges statewide and to the Legislature. Some judges in those courts where a version of CCMS (V-3 the civil module) was implemented think it is wonderful. Others tell me it is a failure.

The playwright in Il Turco in Italia finds a happy ending to his play. The wayward wife decides it is more prudent to be more conservative and stay home with her husband and gives up her two lovers, one of whom is the Turk. The Turk settles down with the woman he truly loves, a slave from his harem, and the wife's other lover repents and gains forgiveness from her husband.

But I am facing an obstacle. There is not as yet an ending to the CCMS drama, let alone a happy one. Is there a way to bring this drama to a happy ending? Perhaps we all can agree that a statewide case management system that works will be beneficial and efficiently improve the administration of justice. But a good ending for this drama lies in the answers to some questions. Is CCMS worth the cost? If so, how do we pay for it when the judiciary's budget may be cut by $200 million? If we halt the project now, will we lose the investment we have made to date if we resume the project in the future? The Administrative Office of the Courts,(AOC,)just answered this question in the minutes of its last meeting. Cancelling the program will result in an unrecoverable loss of $270.5 million already spent on the development of CCMS-V4. With that good news in mind, how does the judiciary decide its spending priorities with a drastically reduced budget?

The playwright in Il Turco in Italia intervened on occasion to prod the characters in certain directions to achieve a good ending. I too wish to nudge us in a direction toward a satisfactory ending for our drama. I suggest an approach that reflects a paramount value: all players in our drama, the judges, lawyers, and administrators throughout the state, whatever their opinions about CCMS, unite in support of our highest priority Keep the Courts Open.

To close the courtroom in the middle of a trial and tell litigants they must go home and come back in two days because we have other things to pay for is not a good ending to our drama. It is disheartening to the judges and court staff who have devoted themselves to the cause of justice. And it is most unfair to the public who trusts us and depends on us to resolve their disputes.

Keeping our values straight will provide a good ending to our drama. And the award, the coveted Oliver, will go to those who sacrifice to make this ending possible.

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