More than 300 civil cases filed between 1989 and 2001 in Broward Circuit Court were kept secret from the public, showing that the hiding of select lawsuits was a deep-rooted practice.
Dozens of the confidential divorces and lawsuits involve the powerful and influential, including politicians, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officers.
Those cases come on top of another 107 civil cases that were kept off the public docket between 2001 and 2006, reported by The Miami Herald in April. At the newspaper's request, the Broward clerk's office searched its records and located another 314 cases. All the cases are now on the public docket, under new rules issued this summer by Chief Judge Dale Ross, but their contents remain sealed.
Secret cases are extremely rare - just 421 since the clerk began electronically docketing cases in 1989. Last year alone, there were 44,775 civil and family court cases filed in Broward Circuit Court.
But the fact that many hidden cases involved local leaders disturbed advocates.
"It's depressing, " said Paul K. McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum foundation in Arlington, Va. "It's secret justice for some and public justice for everyone else. The problem is secret justice is not really justice."
Among the newly discovered hidden cases:
- Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin's divorce from her first husband, Boca Raton lawyer Jeffrey Wasserman, in the early 1990s, when she was chairwoman of the Broward School Board.
- Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner's divorce from lawyer William Gardiner III, filed six months after Gardiner took office in 1998. It vanished from the public record the next day.
- Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson's divorce, removed from the public docket in 1998 when he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Lauderdale. Levenson said he asked to seal the case for security reasons, but didn't know it also had been removed from the docket.
"That's weird, " Levenson said.
Wasserman-Rubin and Gardiner did not return telephone calls.
- The divorces of several former public officials, such as Broward Commissioner Howard Craft and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Robert Dressler. Craft, whom records indicate was not represented by an attorney, could not be located for comment. Dressler's divorce lawyer, Bruce Little, said he didn't know the ex-mayor's case was off the docket - or that his own divorce was also.
The Miami Herald previously reported that divorces involving Circuit Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV; County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren; ex-Broward Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant and North Broward Hospital District Chairman Paul Sallarulo were kept confidential. Also hidden were lawsuits against a former presidential speechwriter, the South Broward Hospital District and Holy Cross Hospital.
Sensitive information in cases can legally be sealed under certain circumstances. But no state law authorizes judges to remove cases from the public docket. And federal courts with authority over Florida have declared the practice unconstitutional.
It's unclear why the cases were off the public docket. Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman has said it happens only when judges order it. Judge Ross said clerks might have misconstrued judicial orders. He did not return two calls seeking comment.
"The fact that we're finding more and more of these cases is alarming, " said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
"It makes you question what's happening with the judicial system. Is there a lack of communication between judges and clerks? Are there judges who are arbitrarily just improperly sealing cases as political favor, or whatever? What's happening here?"
A review of the recently opened dockets showed judges typically acted to seal cases at the request of one or both parties. They often did so without issuing public notice or holding a hearing, as required by law.
But progress dockets - a log of the court proceedings - indicate judges sometimes issued sealing orders without being asked, and clerks sometimes closed off cases when no sealing order was issued.
Such cases also have been found in Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Sarasota counties. Court officials in Miami-Dade have said cases are not hidden there.
Other newly uncovered Broward cases include:
- A 2000 lawsuit against Fort Lauderdale's Mutual Benefits Corp by investor Rory R. Enright over an insurance policy. Four years later, the nation's largest viatical settlement company was shut down for allegedly running an elaborate Ponzi scheme that took in more than $1 billion from unsuspecting investors.
The case was later dismissed, and the judge granted Mutual Benefits' motion to seal it. Bruce Culpepper, Enright's lawyer, said he didn't know the case had been removed from public view.
- A 1998 case involving Jennifer Bush, whose mother was found guilty of deliberately making her child sick to attract attention for herself.
- The state sued to terminate parental rights, a proceeding the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2001 should remain secret. Beverly Pohl, a lawyer for the mother who wanted the case heard in open court, said it appeared to her that under a state statute, any information pertaining to such proceedings should not be open to the public. Nevertheless, the progress docket now is accessible.
- The 2000 divorce of Coral Springs-based home builder Itzhak Ezratti of G.L. Homes. "In all my years practicing law, I've never asked for, or been the recipient of, a motion or request to basically undocket a case, " said Andrew Leinoff, a Miami lawyer who represented Anna Ezratti. Itzhak Ezratti did not respond to calls for comment.
- The 1990 divorce of Preston G. Stern, a one-time Coral Springs doctor who pleaded guilty to sexual battery on a patient. Parties involved in the case couldn't be located for comment.