Florida’s Rocket Docket Redux

15 Mar Florida’s Rocket Docket Redux

Courtesy Rolling Stone

Remember the Summer of 2010 when America’s eyes were trained on Jacksonville because of a Rolling Stone article and CNN story describing Florida’s Foreclosure Rocket Dockets?

The national journalism detailed the cozy relationship between the banks’ lawyers and the band of retired judges who, for upwards of $600 per day, rubber-stamped foreclosure judgments in the face of obviously fraudulent evidence. The media coined the term “Robo-Judges.”

You may also recall from that Rolling Stone piece the Chief Judge of the Duval County Rocket Docket famously declaring on CNN that he had never seen any bank fraud in his courtroom. He described the banks’ conduct as merely “sloppy.” I was actually investigated by The Florida Bar for speaking out to CNN about this travesty of justice. With truth as my defense, The Florida Bar could do little to shut me up.

Fast forward to present time and the recent $26B settlement between the mortgage servicing industry and state prosecutors. The servicers agreed to pay this rather paltry fine, with over $8B earmarked for Florida, solely to acknowledge the very fraud our band of retired judges refused to see.

Mercifully, the Statewide Rocket Docket ran out of funding last year, and the retired judges were replaced with judges actually accountable for their conduct.

Well, now it appears that Florida is on the verge of Rocket Docket Redux. It has already started in Jacksonville. The same band of retired judges is set to return to the bench, bolstered by renewed legislative funding for foreclosure court and a new fast-track foreclosure bill (SB 1890/HB 213)that, if eventually passed, will give these senior judges even more power to ignore bank fraud.

From a purely fiscal standpoint, the millions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for these senior judges makes no sense. Statewide, circuit court case filings are DOWN, with the lone exception of foreclosures. Sitting circuit court judges DO NOT NEED HELP with foreclosures, and when those foreclosures are taken away from them, THEY WILL HAVE NOTHING TO DO.

The last time Senior Judge Rocket Docket was in full swing, there were stories of regular judges sitting around twittling their thumbs. I would encourage news reporters (if there are any left) to investigate their local circuit court judges to see exactly how busy they are without hearing foreclosures. If courthouses really wanted to address the record number of foreclosures being filed, they should get rid of special foreclosure divisions altogether and have underworked circuit civil judges hear foreclosures 5 days a week in every civil division.

And, at the same time Florida’s Legislators are handing pork to senior judges who already enjoy retirement at 99% of their former salary, the Clerk of Courts, who actually has to process all these foreclosures, has had salaries CUT across the board by 7%. C’Mon Governor Rick Scott, where’s that VETO pen?

In truth, it appears a deal may have been struck between the banksters, our state legislators and our judiciary. Mortgage servicers will infuse tens of millions of dollars into our cash-strapped judicial system (each foreclosure filing fee is $1,900) in exchange for an “easier” foreclosure process. The senior judges are brought in to do the “dirty work,” and it will take years before the Supreme Court of Florida strikes down the new foreclosure law as unconstitutional.

But heck! These senior judges don’t need no stinkin’ laws to do what they are paid to do! Senior “robo-judging” has been back in Jacksonville for a whole two weeks, and there are already stories of one senior judge signing stacks of eviction notices without even reading them while another signed a stack of orders on contested motions without a hearing.

The coup de gras – the Chief Senior Judge of Duval County, on his second day back in the saddle, actually threatened to throw a lawyer in jail because that lawyer had the audacity to insist he be allowed to argue the law. I guess I better pack my toothbrush in my briefcase from now on.

Homeowners continue to be unfairly blamed for the phantom “backlog” in our court system, but in reality, most foreclosures are uncontested by homeowners because they have given up on any notion of fairness in the process. Nearly every homeowner I consult is in the modification process at the time they are served with foreclosure complaint. These homeowners just want what the modification the servicers agreed to provide when, in 2008, they took hundreds of billions of dollars in TARP bailouts and received 7 trillion dollars in zero interest loans.

As I previously reported, a recent study in the Washington Law Review concludes that it is the mortgage servicer who wants to keep homeowners in foreclosure purgatory because that is where servicers makes the greatest amount of money by charging thousands of dollars in late fees, property inspection fees, forced placed insurance, etc. The gravy train stops once a Final Judgment is entered.

This is no longer a fight about foreclosures – this is a fight for the very integrity of our courthouses. We all pay for this horrendous system, whether our homes are in foreclosure or not. Encouraging foreclosure over modification depresses all home values and stalls our housing recovery. Speak out to your elected officials and tell them you are tired of banks buying their influence and our courts.

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Chip Parker is the managing partner of Parker & DuFresne, P.A., where he represents Northeast Florida businesses and consumers facing bankruptcy, and homeowners facing foreclosure. His firm files more homeowners in the Mortgage Modification Mediation Program than any other law firm in Northeast Florida. Parker is the recipient of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid's prestigious Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Service. Mr. Parker is an active member of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys and National Association of Consumer Advocates.
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