The discovery of hundreds of secret divorce files in Broward County, Florida has been quite the scandal. Yesterday, Susan Spencer-Wendel, Palm Beach Post reported there are some in Palm Beach County, too. "The divorce of Leslie Alexander, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team, is one of a handful of local divorces sealed and excised from public view for years as if it never even existed.
In 2003, Alexander split with wife Nanci, after agreeing to pay her $150 million. The couple asked that their entire divorce file be sealed, and a senior circuit judge, Allen Kornblum, obliged.
The order stood until last week when another circuit court judge, Art Wroble, ruled it was sealed improperly and ordered the Alexanders' divorce opened.
The ruling comes in the wake of reports about supersealed cases being kept around Florida, including divorces and civil suits of the rich and connected -ó contrary to the state's public records law and the spirit of openness at every courthouse door. The chief judge of Florida, Fred Lewis, has said he about swallowed his tongue when he heard the reports and is acting swiftly to change things....
Palm Beach County's secret dockets pale in comparison to those of Broward County. A Miami Herald investigation there this year revealed more than 400 cases kept on a secret docket in Broward County, including dozens of divorces and civil suits involving politicians, judges and lawyers."
Most people would be shocked to learn how much is public record within their divorce pleadings. Redacting personal identifiers to reduce the chance of identity theft is sound and long overdue. There are also instances where courts can appropriately seal private information and even entire files for good cause. Florida's problem seems to be not only the sealing without cause, but the total elimination of a sealed case's presence in any of the docket logs, as though it didn't exist. That smells fishy and the Florida Chief Judge is wise to remedy this situation swiftly. It is not so much the prurient details of the cases of celebrities and politicians that need to be promptly unsealed, but the discovery and remedy of how cases could "disappear" even if properly sealed needs to be addressed and prevented from recurring.