State probe set on secret court cases

 

pdanner@MiamiHerald.com

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said Wednesday he will investigate why there is no trace of more than 100 Broward County court cases in the public records.

Crist's probe follows reports in The Miami Herald this week that divorces and other lawsuits involving judges, elected officials, TV personalities and other high-profile people have been concealed in Broward Circuit Court.

"The main concern is public information being withheld from the public, " said JoAnn Carrin, spokeswoman for Crist, a Republican candidate for governor. "We're not pointing any fingers, but based on what we've seen reported in The Herald . . . if these cases should be open to the public, then the court needs to open them."

The Miami Herald obtained the case numbers and party names for the hidden cases Monday after it sued Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman. But the cases themselves remain under seal, with all allegations and outcomes unknown. The clerk's office still has no plans to publicly docket the cases.

LEGAL STATUS

The law allows judges to "seal" cases - or close off the information in them - under limited circumstances. However, no state law allows judges to remove cases altogether from the public docket, and a federal appeals court with authority over Florida has called the practice unconstitutional.

Forman said Wednesday he is planning an announcement in a couple of days "that will clarify everything, " although he declined to disclose any details.

"I think Charlie Crist will be very happy with the final outcome of this, " Forman said.

Forman has said his office is only following judges' orders when cases are kept off public dockets. In turn, Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross has said some clerks may have misinterpreted orders and wrongly removed cases from public view. Ross was unvailable for comment Wednesday.

Open-government advocates welcomed Crist's announcement.

"It sounds like finally someone in authority is trying to make the system accountable. Obviously, an investigation is called for, " said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va.

BRISTLING AT SECRECY

"A secret docket is something that kind of makes the hair on the back of our neck stand up, " added Adria Harper, director of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

"We hope their look will be thorough, keeping in mind citizens' rights of access, " Harper said. Since The Miami Herald first reported on Broward's hidden cases in April, two judges have issued court orders unsealing a total of four cases.

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