In a turn of events that consumer advocates are celebrating, Florida's infamous "rocket docket" foreclosure courts may be on the verge of extinction, thanks to state budget cuts.
According to a document obtained by The Huffington Post, Palm Beach County has already started cancelling foreclosure cases. "Because of the lack of funding from the Florida legislature, judges will be unable to preside over foreclosure trials beginning July 1, 2011," the order reads.
Florida created its special foreclosure-only courts in order to prevent the enormous load of eviction cases from overwhelming other judicial functions. These courts earned their "rocket docket" label as judges began pushing through foreclosure cases as fast as possible, under circumstances that consumer advocates claim make it difficult for borrowers to receive a fair hearing. Judges routinely hear hundreds of cases in a day, with some hearings last as little as 20 seconds. Attorneys for homeowners say the courts do not receive sufficient funding to handle their caseloads.
The Florida foreclosure courts came to national attention last summer as major banks and their lawyers were accused of a massive robo-signing scandal, in which employees signed thousands of key foreclosure documents a day without reviewing them for accuracy. These shoddy, questionably legal practices mirrored those employed by the state's eviction judges.
"Those foreclosure courts are a joke," says Matt Englett, a partner at the Florida law firm Kaufman Englett Lynd PLLC. "The judges just ran 'em through. And we could appeal them and win. But if you can't afford to appeal them, you're stuck." Englett notes that rocket-docket judges often don't even review documents or evidence in the cases, but simply ask a few questions before making a ruling -- generally in favor of the bank. "A lot of this robo-signing -- if they're in front of a real judge, they would have to look at these things," Englett says.
In March, Republican Governor Rick Scott approved a $14 million loan to foreclosure courts statewide that must be repaid by the end of the state's fiscal year on June 30. And the governor's office says no additional funding will be coming on July 1. Judges are already cancelling hearings in anticipation of the funding shortage.
If the the Florida's foreclosure courts shutdown, which attorneys in the state currently expect, the result may well be a heavy burden on its overall judicial system. But homeowners battling the banks will likely benefit. Many claim lenders' lawyers have served them with fraudulent documents that overstate their loan balances and misrepresent their cases.
"They're going to have the foreclosure court cases transferred to the regular circuit court judges," Englett tells HuffPost. "It's really a good thing for people in foreclosure, because now you'll have judges who will actually hear the cases instead of just try to ram 'em through, which is going on right now."
The foreclosure courts are operated on a county-by-county basis. While some counties with fewer homeowners in default may remain open, lawyers expect to see courts in the major foreclosure hotbeds shutting down in the coming weeks.
Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), an ardent critic of Florida's foreclosure system during his time in office, blasted both the foreclosure courts and Scott's funding strategy in an email exchange with HuffPost.
"They’re awful," Grayson writes, referring to the rocket dockets. "The whole point of the justice system is to apply the law to the facts. Simply pushing as many cases through as possible, at the highest possible speed, resembles sausage-making more than due process."
"But what’s even worse," he adds, "is that Rick Scott is gutting the legal system, one of the core functions of government, in order to finance more tax cuts for the rich, since Scott is insisting on eliminating the corporate income tax."
Both the governor and the Florida legislature could approve more funds for the foreclosure courts at any time before July 1. But doing so would involve a significant loss of political face for Scott, who is embroiled in other political spats with the state's judicial system over a new "non-partisan" redistricting plan that voters approved by direct ballot last fall. And for now, at least, Scott isn't offering up any more funds.
"This is a question of the courts being able to live within their means," Scott spokesman Lane Wright tells HuffPost. "We've got a budget and we've gotta stick to it."