Oppenheim Law Wants You To Be the Judge: Are Florida’s Courts Restricting Access to the Media + Homeowners?
by Attorney Geoffrey Sherman and Roy Oppenheim
Once again, we have Lore versus Law. I’m sure by now when you hear the term “Rocket-Docket” you immediately associate this term with how the Florida’s courts are handling the foreclosure crisis. For those of you who don’t know, Florida’s legislature appropriated approximately $9.6 million this year from Federal stimulus funds to clear out the courts’ backlog of foreclosure cases. The funds are being used to create special foreclosure divisions (“Rocket Dockets”) that are heard by retired senior judges in order to clear 62% of the backlog by July of 2011. It usually takes less than a minute for the judge to hear and make a decision per case.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began investigating issues surrounding the Rocket Dockets in Courts throughout the State of Florida. During their investigations, it has come to their attention that some courts are violating both the constitutional and legal rights of the media and the public to attend these foreclosure hearings.
The ACLU, the Florida Press Association and several other journalism groups addressed several reports of Courts restricting access to the media, and in some cases homeowners, in a joint press release. Along with sending letters to Florida’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, Charles T. Canady and Chief Judge Donald R. Moran of Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit requesting that they investigate these allegations and take corrective actions.
The letters sent to the Judges provide a brief illustration of some of the reports the ACLU and other groups have received:
1) A pro se defendant wanted to attend a foreclosure hearing to prepare for the defense of his own foreclosure lawsuit and know what to expect when his case was heard. He was told that the foreclosure hearings are “private”, take place in judges’ chambers, and that he would not be permitted to observe them.
2) Matt Taibbi, a reporter from the Rolling Stones Magazine attended a foreclosure proceeding with Jacksonville Legal Aid Attorney, April Charney. Mr. Taibbi left the chambers to speak with a pro se litigant whose case had just been heard. Later that day, the judge sent an e-mail to Ms. Charney regarding the reporter that she brought with her to the hearing. The Judge stated that, while “attorneys are welcome in Chambers at their leisure,” members of the media are “permitted” entry only upon “proper request to the security officer.” He further informed her that she “did not have the authority to take anyone back to chambers without proper screening.” He also stated that her “apparent authorization that the reporter could pursue a property owner immediately out of Chambers into the hallway for an interview” may be “sited [sic] for possible contempt charges in the future.”
These examples clearly demonstrate that the Courts are violating the First Amendment Rights and Florida Law regarding the openness to the public. Florida case law provides that there is a strong presumption of openness for all court proceedings with only a few exceptions. Here, the Courts are usurping their powers and restricting the public from attending these Rocket Dockets, so they can expedite the hearings and clear the backlog of cases.
In response to the ACLU’s letter, Florida Chief Justice Charles T. Canady promptly issued the following statement, “I have received the letter and am deeply concerned about the allegations it makes. Today I am directing the Office of the State Courts Administrator to make recommendations concerning appropriate corrective actions.”
FloriDUH Strikes Again!