tampabay.com

High court: No hiding cases

Improper sealing of civil cases is banned. Criminal cases may be next.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published April 6, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Supreme Court issued emergency rules Thursday designed to stop the improper sealing of court records and dockets in civil cases, but delayed a decision on whether they also should cover criminal cases.

The unsigned, unanimous opinion requires court clerks to post notices on their Web sites and courthouses after a record is sealed, and allows challenges to those decisions. Courts also are prohibited from making case, docket and other identifying numbers confidential.

"Most significant for our purposes here ... the removal from public view of all information acknowledging the existence of a case is expressly not allowed," the justices wrote.

That's exactly what happened in Broward County with divorces and other civil cases involving more than 100 prominent people, including television personalities, judges and elected officials.

The Miami Herald last year disclosed the hidden docket after obtaining case numbers and names, but not sealed documents, through a lawsuit.

Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis then ordered an inquiry, including reports from chief judges in each of the state's 20 judicial circuits. That turned up more secret files, but Lewis said the problem appeared isolated and usually resulted from unintentional mistakes.

The high court observed it never would have learned about the secret records without the news media.

The court rejected an argument from media lawyer Carol Jean LoCicero that parties who seek closure, rather than challengers, should have the burden of proof. The justices found it reasonable to give judges' orders "a presumption of correctness" and require challengers to show they are unsound.

"I'm cautiously hopeful," LoCicero said. "You don't know how these things are going to work out until you see it in practice."