THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, November 15, 2010......... Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady on Monday ordered his chief administrator to investigate accusations that some judges are barring the public from property foreclosure proceedings in response to a deluge of cases now flooding circuit courts across the state.
Several groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment advocates allege that the public has been kept out of proceedings, even though Florida law dictates that the cases should remain open to the public.
“We recognize that the heavy volume of foreclosure cases has led to difficulties finding judges and courtrooms to hear the cases,” the group wrote in a letter Friday to Canady and Chief Judge Donald R. Moran of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Duval County.
“As a result, some cases are being held in chambers for lack of an available traditional courtroom. Nevertheless, the proceedings must be open, even if they are temporarily in a smaller and less form physical setting than usual,” stated the lette signed by the ACLU, the Florida Press Association, the First Amendment Foundation, Florida Association of Broadcasters, the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida Times-Union.
In response to a flood of foreclosures clogging the courts and hindering real estate sales, Florida lawmakers earlier this year earmarked state funds to speed up the foreclosure process. Some circuits have tapped retired justices to handle foreclosure cases quickly in what critics refer to as “rocket dockets”
James Rhea, director of the First Amendment Foundation, said his office began receiving a few complaints about closed foreclosure proceedings over the summer. The frequency of complaints has risen and Rhea said he’s now getting calls from across the state.
In some cases, foreclosure cases are taking place in judges’ chambers instead of the courtroom because the volume of cases is so great that the courtrooms are not always quickly available. Some judges have objected to having the public in chambers. Other judges have said reporters and members of the public must give them advance notice if they want to attend a foreclosure proceeding in the chambers, Rhea said.
“We have openness in the judiciary in order to ensure that people trust the outcomes and there is a great trust in the power put in judges,”
The foreclosure crisis in Florida has been put under the microscope as the state attorney general has begun to investigate bad practices by some lenders. Several banks have had to freeze foreclosure cases after allegations arose that proper protocol had not been followed in handling the cases.
“I have received the (ACLU) letter and am deeply concerned about the allegations it makes,” Canady said in a brief statement Monday afternoon directing the Office of the State Courts Administrator to make recommendations on how to best take corrective actions.