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Hot-potato cases back in judges' laps

Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said he will ask the judges in each of more than 100 court cases now kept secret whether to move them onto the public docket.

Forman on Thursday began filing court motions requesting the judges clarify whether the case numbers, party names and logs of court proceedings should remain confidential.

The action is in response to a series of Miami Herald reports that revealed cases involving judges, elected officials, TV personalities and other high-profile people have been hidden from public view in Broward Circuit Court. There is no trace of them on the public record, so that they seem not to exist at all.

On Wednesday, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said he would investigate why the case information for dozens of cases hidden since 2001 isn't public.

The Miami Herald obtained the case numbers and party names for the hidden files after suing Forman, but they still remain off the public docket.

The cases themselves remain under seal, which means the information in them is closed off.

Forman's move effectively puts the controversy in the judges' laps.

"I think this really kind of forces the issue that everybody's been talking about, " Forman said of his court motions. "It will give the public the opportunity, if the judges consent, to see new information that they never saw before."

But Thomas Julin, a First Amendment lawyer in Miami, wondered why Forman doesn't just publicly docket the cases on his own.

"Unless the clerk has an order in hand to remove the dockets from public view, then they should restore all of the dockets to the public record, " Julin said. He added that Forman's move will likely lead to more litigation over access to the court records.

Because the cases are sealed, it's unclear how they became hidden in the first place.

Forman has maintained that his office is only following judges' orders in making cases confidential.

Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross, however, has said some clerks may have misinterpreted orders and wrongly removed cases from public view.

Four judges whose cases had been hidden told The Miami Herald in April that they had ordered sensitive information sealed, but never meant for whole cases to disappear.

Vanessa Steinerts, the clerk's general counsel, said she spoke with Ross about the motions.

"I think court administration is trying to work with us so that whatever information that needs to be made public will be, " she said.

Forman's motions do not ask the judges to unseal the cases.