Florida’s ‘Rocket Docket’ Blasted
Florida has the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation, registering nearly 57,000 foreclosure filings in October, according to RealtyTrac. Last year, the Florida legislature approved $9.6 million to hire retired judges to clear out the backlog of nearly 500,000 foreclosure cases. The goal was to process 62 percent of the outstanding cases.
But critics call it a “rocket docket” that favors banks over borrowers and makes a mockery of the state’s courts and personal property rights.
A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi visited Jacksonville and sat in on one of Florida’s “rocket docket” courts, where Senior Judge A.C. Soud presides over the Fourth Circuit Court. What he witnessed shocked him.
In an article titled “Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners,” Taibbi accused Florida judges of ramming foreclosure files through the courts with little regard for the rule of law. He argues that the makeshift courts are a closed-door assembly line where judges sign off on 25 cases an hour, reviewing each case in only two minutes each. He adds:
“It exists to launder the crime and bury the evidence by speeding thousands of fraudulent and predatory loans to the ends of their life cycles, so that the houses attached to them can be sold again with clean paperwork. The judges, in fact, openly admit that their primary mission is not justice but speed. One Jacksonville judge, the Honorable A.C. Soud, even told a local newspaper that his goal is to resolve 25 cases per hour. Given the way the system is rigged, that means His Honor could well be throwing one ass on the street every 2.4 minutes.”
It’s a familiar theme that Taibbi covers in his new book on the financial crisis “Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America,” which was published last week by Random House. Taibbi discovers far worse than sloppy paperwork on the part of banks. Not only are the banks manufacturing phony documents, argues Taibbi, the geriatric judges are heavily skewed to favor the banks.
“No one might think that after a bank makes multiple attempts to push phony documents through a courtroom, a judge might be pissed off enough to simply rule against that plaintiff for good. As I witness in court all morning, the defense never gets more than one chance to screw up. But the banks get to keep filing their foreclosures over and over again, no matter how atrocious and deceitful their paperwork is.”
Rolling Stone ended the polemic this way:
“This is the dirty secret of the rocket docket: The whole system is set up to enable lenders to commit fraud over and over again, until they figure out a way to reduce the stink enough so some judge like Soud can sign off on the scam. "If the court finds for the defendant, the plaintiffs just refile," says Parker, the local attorney. "The only way for the caseload to get reduced is to give it to the plaintiff. The entire process is designed with that result in mind.”
Taibbi is not the only reporter to cover the “rocket docket.” CNN reporter Poppy Harlow also went to Jacksonville and filed this story about the robo-judges.
Is this a fair portrait of the banks and the Florida judicial system? Or is there more to the story than this?