Secret dockets run afoul of courts

 

pdanner@MiamiHerald.com

No state law or rule authorizes judges to put lawsuits on a secret docket. And the practice has been ruled unconstitutional by the appeals court with authority over federal cases in Florida.

The ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came in the case of Colombian drug baron Fabio Ochoa, convicted in Miami in 2003. Ochoa claimed that a secret docket was used to hide evidence favorable to him by veiling the criminal cases of potential witnesses.

Last October, in Ochoa's appeal, the appeals court said secret dockets violated the First Amendment and warned judges not to hide cases.

The same principle extends to the states, legal experts say.

"The First Amendment applies to the states the last time I looked, " said Ochoa's Miami appellate attorney, Richard Strafer. In Florida, secret dockets were undercut in February by a West Palm Beach appellate court.

In that case, a man who claimed to be the biological father wanted to obtain the case number for the sealed adoption of an infant. Judges ordered the case number released because it disclosed no confidential information.

The ruling prompted the Palm Beach County Clerk to begin disclosing the case numbers of 46 cases hidden by judges' orders since 2001. The public still will not be able to access other case details.

Florida law on public access to court records traces to a 1988 state Supreme Court decision to unseal the divorce file of a powerful North Florida politician.

The court held that there was a "strong presumption of public access to [court] proceedings and their records." And when confidentiality is required, it should be "no broader than necessary."

The few exemptions protect trade secrets, personal information about children and other sensitive data.

But even sensitive cases like adoptions should be publicly docketed to allow better oversight of state agencies such as the Department of Children and Families (DCF), experts say.

"Why do I want access to these court files?" asked Gregg Thomas, a First Amendment lawyer in Tampa. "To see if DCF is doing a good job."

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