PLN previously detailed the secret court docket practice of South Florida federal district courts and Connecticut state courts doing the same in our December 2003 issue. That practice was later condemned by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Miami Herald recently exposed the secret court practice as being utilized by several Florida state courts. The problem is most wide-spread in Broward County, where 107 cases were put on a secret docket created in 2001. Of those cases, 51 were divorce proceedings. The docket, obtained by court order at the Herald’s behest, reveals that many of those divorce cases involved judges, lawyers, politicians, local TV personalities, and others of prominence in the community.
The Broward docket also contained paternity, negligence, and contract dispute cases. Broward, however, is not alone in the practice. Palm Beach County hid 46 cases since 2001 and Pinellas stashed away 33 cases in that period. While its unknown how many cases they hid, Hillsborough and Monroe Counties are also in on the action.
In Broward, up to 18 judges ordered cases placed upon the Secret docket, which also included 2,961 family-court cases. Florida law does allow the sealing of portions of a court file to protect third parties, such as children. The total sealing or hiding of a case, however, is not allowed.
“Unless there’s a statutory exception everything should be docketed,” says Broward Circuit Judge Ronald Rothschild. Yet, Rothschild order in the divorce proceedings of WTVJ-NBC 6 reporter Martha Sugalski that “the entire file…shall remain confidential and under seal pending further order of the court.” When he issued that order, Rothschild failed to give notice to the public of his move to seal the case. Rothschild said he was unaware that Florida law required such notice before sealing any court record.
After the Miami Herald’s report exposing this practice, Florida’s Attorney General ordered an investigation.
Meanwhile, federal judges in South Florida have complied with the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling banning secret dockets, but maintaining their practice of secret case transfers. Rather than use a “blind random system” the judges may transfer all or part of a case to a judge of their choosing. Critics claim this creates a risk of perceived or actual conflicts in the performance of judicial duties.
All of the court developments have arisen in the post 9/11 world, which has witnessed a slow, but steady erosion of constitutional and civil rights.
Sources: Miami Herald, Law.com
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