Judicial dilemma: Florida judges pushed into foreclosure fiasco spotlight
Wake up and good morning. Whether they like it or not, judges are getting pulled into the spotlight in the so-called ForeclosureGate scandal. Especially in Florida, ground zero of robo-signing banks and their foreclosure mill law firms, the courts are trying to figure out whether they should be activists in calling for the end of the current flood of tainted paperwork flowing through their hallowed doors, or pushing with all deliberation to expedite those foreclosures that seem cut and dried -- all in the name of moving along a struggling economy.
Some Tampa Bay area lawyers who represent homeowners still see judges rubber-stamping foreclosure documents, reaffirming the "rocket docket" image of courts more inclined to clear their backlog than to provide legal justice to each individual case before them.
Increasingly, Florida judges are showing up in stories as the national media, especially, turns its resources to the courts.
Judges say they are still considering how to deal with the cases that are uncontested. In most courts, that is the vast majority of foreclosures, the New York Times reports in this story. "People don’t understand why we don’t become more proactive in conducting our own investigations," Peter D. Blanc, chief justice for the 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida (photo, above left), told the New York Times. "Why aren’t we going behind the pleadings to see if there’s fraud? But people on the other side say we’re reacting too much to news stories. We struggle to try and maintain a level playing field."
In Florida's Duval County, home to Jacksonville, Frederick B. Tygart, a circuit court judge overseeing a foreclosure case recently ruled that agents representing Deutsche Bank relied on documents that "must have been counterfeited." according to another New York Times story. The judge stopped the foreclosure. Deutsche Bank had no comment.
Then there's the NPR tale from southwest Florida of Charlie Green, Lee County's clerk of courts, who sees the freeze and the issue of false affidavits as just a temporary setback to that effort. For homeowners facing foreclosure, Green says, there really is just one pertinent question: "Did you make your payments in a timely manner and have you been a good mortgagor? If you haven't made your payments, you're in default by definition." He says the issue with the faulty affidavits doesn't change that basic determination. "Now, if here's some technicality that the bank should have done, shame on them and they probably should be punished for that," he says. "But the underlying thing is, did you make your payment?"
In the same NPR story, real estate attorney Kevin Jursinski, who has practiced in Lee County for nearly 30 years, argues Lee County's rocket docket takes shortcuts that deny many homeowners their right to due process. "With all due respect to the judiciary," he says, "I think it's a blemish on our court system."
In today's Wall Street Journal, this story look sat several Florida judges and how they deal with the foreclosure tsunami. In Dade City, Judge Wayne L. Cobb came out of retirement to help clear some of the 33,000 foreclosure cases jamming the court where he sat on the bench for 32 years. Then foreclosure-paperwork problems prompted banks to suspend some proceedings. So Judge Cobb's caseload is lighter, but the backlog remains, the Journal reports.
Shoddy foreclosure procedures, and the subsequent suspensions, have also frozen cases in court, the story notes. The moratorium "means these cases will be sitting there in la la land," 85-year-old Senior Judge Robert M. Deehl, another retired judge, tells the newspaper.
Finally, the Journal returns to the four courthouses of the Sixth Circuit, which includes Tampa and Clearwater. Last week, lenders canceled about half of the last week's hundreds of foreclosure cases. On one morning in Clearwater, lenders or their law firms canceled 22 out of 33 cases that were to be heard. The cancellations mean that the Sixth Circuit is likely to fall short of its goal to clear 800 cases a week, the Journal reports.
"It was a noble goal but one that is going to be extremely hard to get to," said Thomas McGrady, the chief judge. McGrady has been one of the more outspoken in the courts to say judges in his circuit will scrutinize foreclosure documents, case by case.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist