September 13, 2006

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Lewis commendably has taken the initiative to stop state judges from hiding court cases from public view with the introduction of a set of proposed rule changes. It turns out that Broward County judges are not alone in sealing cases, effectively blocking them from public inspection. Now, it has come to light that judges in Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Pinellas and Pasco counties have hidden cases as well.

So new statewide rules that control what cases can be sealed are needed, especially for judges who "super seal" a record — meaning the case is completely removed from public access.

Prominent people

The state already has rules governing when a court case could be sealed, such as when a juvenile is involved, for example. But after a Miami Herald investigation found that Broward judges had sealed more than 400 civil-court cases — many of them involving prominent local people, not individuals entitled to privacy under the law — Justice Lewis queried other counties about this practice. The news stunned Chief Justice Lewis and the rest of the Supreme Court justices. Justice Lewis asked the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers to draft new rules to govern judges. Any new rules would have to be adopted by the Florida justices.

The clerks group recommends that judges be required to hold hearings before a record can be sealed and that judges explain in writing precisely what information is being withdrawn. The group also proposed that clerks in each circuit identify every sealed case since 2003 and that each chief judge determine whether the sealings comply with current law.

After The Miami Herald's investigation, Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross began requiring Broward judges to return hidden cases to the public docket. But the contents of most of those cases remain secret, which is unacceptable.

Violation of legal system

Also, the proposed statewide rules don't address another egregiously bad habit of a few Broward judges: the "super sealing" of a court record. For all intents and purposes, the case simply disappears. This is such a basic violation of the U.S. legal system that it calls into question the competency of any judge who would take such action. The state Supreme Court should explicitly ban the super sealing of court cases.

The court also should research the proposed changes for any loopholes before adopting them. For instance, there should be ample time between when a judge announces a hearing date on closing a record and when the hearing is actually held to allow all interested parties time to be notified.

Copyright 2006, The Miami Herald

From: Herald Staff, The Miami Herald, [Editorial] September 13, 2006, p. 20A.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.