More than 100 lawsuits are being hidden from the public on a secret docket in Broward Circuit Court, The Miami Herald has found.
Divorce, negligence, malpractice and fraud cases have all vanished into a kind of legal black hole where it's impossible to tell not just what's in them, but that they exist at all.
The practice of putting cases on a secret docket conflicts with two of the most basic tenets of America's justice system - that courts must be open to public eyes, and that they must provide equal treatment to all.
"What you have operating is a secret judiciary, " said Thomas Julin, a First Amendment lawyer in Miami. "They are undermining the institutional credibility of the courts by making them secret."
Such secrecy makes it harder to hold companies or state agencies publicly accountable. Findings that a contractor had committed fraud, or a company had sold an unsafe product, would be concealed.
The secrecy can also fuel the perception - or possibly even make it reality - that the rich, the famous and the politically connected get special treatment from the courts.
"Are they making all divorces confidential? Obviously not, " Julin said. "So the question becomes, is it special for special people?" The practice isn't unique to Broward County, The Miami Herald learned. Civil cases also have been hidden in Palm Beach and Pinellas circuit courts. In addition, thousands of family-court cases statewide have disappeared from the public record because of a very strict - and possibly wrong - interpretation of privacy law.
In Broward, the missing cases include the divorce of local TV news personality Martha Sugalski, lawsuits brought by the families of 17 autistic children who were molested at their school, and a lawsuit filed by the estate of a Coral Springs man killed in a 2003 plane crash.
In response to reporters' inquiries, Broward judges now are studying the practice, and two judges have set hearings this week to consider opening up four hidden cases.
TAKEN OFF THE DOCKET
Broward judges deemed 107 civil and family cases "confidential" from 2001 through last month, reports the clerk's office. Those cases were taken off the docket, the public log of court proceedings.
An additional 2,961 family-court cases were supposed to be "sealed, " a fairly common practice where sensitive information is closed off. But instead, they were left off the public docket altogether, as if they had never happened. Such wholesale secrecy is also employed by courts in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Monroe counties.
In Miami-Dade, court clerk Harvey Ruvin's lawyer, Luis G. Montaldo, denied using a secret docket.
Palm Beach Court Clerk Chief Operating Officer Uncha Kim acknowledged that judges have ordered 46 cases hidden there since 2001. However, Kim said, the clerk's office intends to disclose those case numbers after a recent court ruling. Pinellas' director of court services, Carol Heath, said 33 civil cases were pulled from the public docket on judges' orders since 2001.
In Broward, the secret docket has been used as long as Kris Mazzeo, the clerk's director of circuit civil division, can remember - she has worked there for more than two decades.
But the practice comes as a surprise to veteran members of South Florida's legal community.
"This is brand-new to me, " said former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan.