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Florida court upholds foreclosure 'rocket docket' system

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A Florida appellate court denied a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to keep a property seizure case out of an accelerated foreclosure system, known as the "rocket docket." If the court had ruled for the ACLU, the precedent could have paved the way for more foreclosure cases to be pulled off the rocket docket, which is set to end Thursday anyway. To solve a backlog of 40,000 civil and foreclosure cases, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the lower court to establish a system to work through the growing backlog of foreclosure cases last July. According to the high court order, foreclosures could only spend 12 months in the system from "filing to final disposition." Five counties Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades adopted the system. But in April, the ACLU filed a petition against the court on behalf of George Merrigan and his foreclosure case from the Bank of New York Mellon (BK). In the filing, foreclosure defense attorneys claimed judges ignored state-mandated rules, spent only a few minutes per case, and denied a delinquent homeowner a say in court. The circuit responded in June, asserting the Florida Supreme Court set up the system in the first place to solve a problem detrimental to local housing markets, some of the hardest hit by the financial crisis. Chief Judge Keith Cary defended denying delinquent borrowers a say in court. After it is established they were behind on payments to the point of foreclosure, the only issue to settle is the amount of judgment, Cary argued. The funding for the "rocket docket" will run out in June, ending the initiative. Representatives from the circuit said funding was never meant to be renewed. Four of the five counties met or came close to their objective of reducing the backlog by 62% in one year. "With last year’s funding for these special foreclosure dockets running out, the approach going forward must be one that gives priority to ensuring a fair judicial proceeding and protecting the rights of those facing foreclosure and the loss of their home," said Larry Schwartztol, staff attorney for the ACLU. "Any shortcuts that have been undertaken by the courts in Lee County and elsewhere in Florida need to come to an end." The 20th Judicial Circuit did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Write to Jon Prior. Follow him on Twitter @JonAPrior.

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