January/February 2011

Florida Chief Justice Steps In to Assure Foreclosure Courts Are Open

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Timothy J. Conner

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady acted swiftly and decisively in declaring that special courts set up to deal with the foreclosure mess are open to the public. In the wake of the foreclosure crisis that has gripped the country, and Florida in particular, special courts have been set up to deal exclusively with foreclosure cases. Those courts have drawn national attention and have been reported on by The New York Times, Rolling Stone Magazine, CNN and others. As those courts began their work, however, a disturbing trend emerged of the public and reporters not being allowed to attend hearings.

In one particularly egregious incident, a judge erupted over the attendance at a hearing by a reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine who conducted an interview of a pro se litigant following a hearing on whether her home should be foreclosed. The judge admonished the legal aid lawyer who had brought the reporter to the hearing, advising her that the media was “permitted” entry only upon “proper request” of a security officer, and that her actions in allowing the reporter to interview a pro se litigant (who obviously was not her client) could be cited as contempt of court.

Among other incidents, there were reports of people being told that foreclosure proceedings were not open to the public; a pro se litigant being told that only attorneys were allowed in hearings; and a person being told that foreclosure hearings were “in private chambers” and therefore not open to the public.

A number of media interests banded together and wrote to the Chief Justice complaining about these incidents. In a November 12, 2010, letter signed by The Florida Press Association, The American Civil Liberties Union, The First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Association of Broadcasters, The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and The Florida Times-Union, these media interests urged the Chief Justice to take action. Within days, on November 17, the Chief Justice responded in a short, but powerful, memorandum.

The courts of Florida belong to the people of Florida. 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.

The Chief Justice also issued a directive to all of the Chief Judges of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits stating that they should immediately take steps to ensure that the judges they supervise, including the clerks, bailiffs and other personnel, were aware of the fact that foreclosure proceedings are open to the public and to “countermand closures or impediments to access that are inconsistent with Florida law.”

Since that directive came out a number of foreclosure proceedings have been moved from judges’ chambers to larger courtrooms that more easily accommodate members of the public. The swift action of Florida’s Chief Justice in stepping in and righting the course is remarkable. It resolved a difficult situation without the need for costly case-by-case litigation. Justice Canady is to be commended for taking a stand and making it clear that simply because there may be an administrative crisis at hand does not mean the rule of law is suspended.

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