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Chief justice moves to ensure foreclosure hearings are open

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Chief justice moves to ensure foreclosure hearings are open

Following claims that some foreclosure hearings around Florida have been closed to the public, Chief Justice Charles Canady has ordered corrective measures.

“The courts of Florida belong to the people of Florida,” the chief justice said. “The people of Florida are entitled to know what takes place in the courts of this state. No crisis justifies the administrative suspension of the strong legal presumption that state court proceedings are open to the public.”

Chief Justice Canady Canady acted after the Florida Press Association and other organizations sent letters to him and Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Donald Moran detailing instances where members of the public had been told they could not attend foreclosure proceedings.

The letter was signed by representatives of the Florida Press Association, the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, the First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Association of Broadcasters, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, and the editor of the Florida Times-Union.

In response, Chief Justice Canady sent to the chief judges of Florida’s 20 circuits a supervisory memorandum directing the chief judges to ensure that the judges they supervise and the staff who report to those judges, as well as bailiffs and employees of the clerks of court, are not violating the rights of Floridians by improperly closing judicial proceedings to the public.

“The chief judges shall promptly exercise their administrative and supervisory authority to countermand closures or impediments to access that are inconsistent with Florida law,” Canady told the chief judges in a November 17 letter.

Instances cited by the press organizations, included:

• A pro se foreclosure defendant in Duval County was told by a court security person that only attorneys were permitted in foreclosure proceedings.

• Court observers in Hillsborough and Orange counties called their respective courthouses to inquire about attending foreclosure hearings and were told they were not open to the public.

• In Citrus County, a pro se defendant attempting to attend foreclosure hearings in advance of his own hearing in order to help prepare his case was denied access and was told the hearings were private and in the judge’s chambers.

• A Rolling Stone reporter accompanied a legal aid attorney to a foreclosure hearing in Jacksonville, and, at one point left the hearing to interview a pro se litigant. The judge later that day sent an e-mail to the attorney criticizing her for bringing the reporter to the hearings, saying that members of the media were permitted only upon “proper request of the security officer.” The judge also said the attorney apparently authorized the reporter to “pursue” the pro se litigant which could lead to contempt charges.

“Systematically excluding members of the press and public from judicial foreclosure proceedings violates the robust guarantee of open access to courts provided by Florida law,” the letter said.

“This court has held that ‘both civil and criminal court proceedings in Florida are public events and adhere to the well established common law right of access to court proceedings and records.’ Barron v. Fla. Freedom Newspapers, Inc., 531 So. 2d 113, 116 (Fla. 1988).”

The letter said it is the burden of the courts to show that hearings must be closed, not on the public to show why they must have access, and that courts have not established any need to close foreclosure hearings.

“We recognize that the heavy volume of foreclosure cases has led to difficulties finding judges and courtrooms to hear the cases,” the letter said. “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 held temporarily in a smaller and less formal physical setting than usual. While we understand the necessity for ordinary and uniform security screening procedures, the unavailability of a traditional courtroom cannot justify a deprivation of the rights established under Florida law and the U.S. Constitution.”

The groups’ letter to Moran focused on the Duval County incident, which it said occurred October 26, and made the same access arguments as the letter to Chief Justice Canady.

In his letter to the chief judges, Chief Justice Canady also clarified the Supreme Court’s understanding of the goals of the Foreclosure and Economic Recovery Funding Initiative, which was partially funded by the Legislature during the 2010 session. Canady said the goal of using the $6 million appropriated by the Legislature to the trial courts try to reduce the state’s staggering backlog of foreclosure filings by 62 percent is a goal, not a quota.

“There is no reason why the 62 percent goal should interfere with a judge’s ability to adjudicate each case fairly on its merits,” Canady said. “Each case must be adjudicated in accordance with the law.”

Canady also told the chief judges he recognizes the challenges they face in assuring that the “avalanche” of foreclosure cases are resolved properly.

“I am confident that with the cooperation of all judges and court staff, along with the tools of the revised rules of court procedure, implementation of the managed mediation program, and the influx of court resources through the Foreclosure and Economic Recovery Funding Initiative, the Florida courts will be able to meet this challenge in a manner that protects and preserves the rights of all parties, as well as interested observers.”