Divorce cases of big shots hidden

 

pdanner@MiamiHerald.com

Any divorce that lands in court goes on the public record - except the divorces of some judges, elected officials and other big shots, whose cases are hidden on a secret docket in Broward courts. Take the 2003 divorce case of Circuit Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV, or the 2001 divorce of County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Public records don't show that either judge got divorced, much less what's in the files.

The same goes for the 2002 divorce of Miriam Oliphant, Broward's supervisor of elections until she was removed from the post. Or, for that matter, the 2001 divorce of North Broward Hospital District Chairman Paul Sallarulo.

Those files are among more than 100 civil cases since 2001 that have not been on any public records in Broward. The Miami Herald got a list of the files Monday under court order, after the newspaper sued for the release of case numbers and party names. However, the cases themselves remain off the public record, and no further information about them is available at this time.

The use of a secret docket in the first place goes against the basic tenet that courts should be open to the public. But the high-profile names on the docket further raise the question of whether some people get special treatment and are spared the indignity of having the details of their divorces open to all eyes.

Thomas Julin, a First Amendment lawyer in Miami, said he suspects that those who benefit from placement on secret dockets ask for it in the first place.

"Dockets don't seal themselves, " he said. "And judges don't typically do things for no reason at all."

But Lynch, Lerner-Wren and some of the other parties on the list said they never requested their divorce cases be kept secret. Lynch, in a phone interview, said he had no idea his 2003 divorce wasn't on the public docket. In fact, he said, neither he nor his former wife, Bonnie Gray Lynch, even requested that the files be sealed.

"I don't care if it's public record, " added Bonnie Lynch.

The fact that a case was sealed despite neither party requesting it concerned Robert Beatty, general counsel for The Miami Herald.

"It is incumbent upon the clerk and the chief judge to review each case on the secret docket and disclose those cases to the public that were inappropriately included, " Beatty said.

When cases are sealed, the information within them is closed off, except for the most basic details like names and case numbers. Sealing is legally permitted under certain circumstances; for example, to protect innocent third parties, such as children.

But secret docketing goes a step further, because it means that to public eyes the case does not exist. No state rule authorizes judges to put cases on a secret docket. And a federal appeals court has said the practice is unconstitutional.

Nobody in the Broward courts has taken responsibility for the secret docketing.

The Lynch and Lerner-Wren divorces were both overseen by Judge Lawrence Korda. His office was closed Monday, and he could not be reached for comment.

Lerner-Wren, a judge in Broward's criminal division, said she was receiving death threats and had requested records from her 2001 divorce from Christopher Wren, head of Fort Lauderdale's Downtown Development Authority, be sealed for "security reasons." She never asked for the case to be removed from the public docket, she said.

Said Christopher Wren: "I don't know why it was hidden."

The 2002 divorce filed by Cornelius Oliphant against Miriam Oliphant, then Broward's supervisor of elections, is confidential. Neither could be reached.

Gordon Brydger, the former chairman of Broward's Judicial Nominating Commission, is also on the list. His wife sued for divorce in 2003, after his tenure as chairman ended. Brydger, a lawyer, said he never even asked the court to seal his file.

Sallarulo, the chairman of the North Broward Hospital District, could not be reached for comment. Laurie Sallarulo sued for divorce in 2001.

Even now, after the release of the list, the cases remain hidden. The clerk's office has no plans to put them back on the public docket.

Said Vanessa Steinerts, the clerk's general counsel: "There was no further action ordered by the court."

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