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New Rules on Court Records Often Ignored

By Patrick Danner and Dan Christensen
 The Miami Herald
 October 14, 2007

Six months after the Florida Supreme Court ordered tough new rules aimed at curbing the wrongful sealing of court records, judges in Miami-Dade and Broward aren’t following them.

 A review of sealing orders shows judges often are failing to comply with some of the new law’s key requirements, such as specifying in writing the grounds for sealing court records, or including findings that the secrecy was no broader than necessary.

 Broward judges have issued 10 sealing orders since the high court’s ruling on April 5, the clerk’s office said. Eight don’t meet the new requirements.

 Four of six sealing orders that judges issued in Miami-Dade do not comply.

 The cases include the divorce of a prominent Broward homicide prosecutor, a defamation suit against a Miami doctor, and a Fort Lauderdale law firm’s fee dispute in a probate matter.

 The Supreme Court unanimously adopted the rules after The Miami Herald reported that hundreds of civil and criminal cases in at least a half dozen counties were hidden from public view. Broward had the most concealed cases, and they often involved the divorces of judges, lawyers, politicians and businessmen.

 The new rules require all sealing orders be posted on the court clerk’s website and at the courthouse. The idea is to ensure the public has been notified in case anyone wants to challenge a sealing.

 The high court’s ruling also outlawed the practice in civil court of erasing any trace of a case’s existence from the public record, called ”supersealing.” The court continues to study sealing rules regarding criminal cases.

 But the rules aren’t always being followed.

 Some cases involve records the law says should be public. Others involve sensitive information that appears to be exempt from public disclosure, like trade secrets, but were sealed with orders that don’t comply with the new standards.

 It’s unknown whether the number of sealing orders has declined since the new rules took effect.