WSJ Is Incredible on Foreclosure Court

The Journal has a superb A1 story today about a foreclosure “rocket docket” in Florida that gives homeowners fifteen or twenty seconds to “present” their cases.

Reporter Michael Corkery (disclosure: a friend and former colleague of mine) traveled down to Fort Myers to find judges there are hearing some thousand foreclosure cases a day in a frantic bid to cut down a backlog.

Hoping to save her house, Saundra Hill Scott arrived at the county courthouse clutching dog-eared mortgage bills and letters from her lender.

She need not have bothered. The foreclosure hearing lasted less than 20 seconds, with Judge John Carlin asking her two questions: Are you current on your mortgage and are you living in the home? She answered no and yes and then offered to show him her paperwork.

“I don’t need to see that. That’s between you and the bank,” he said as he gave Ms. Hill Scott, her husband and three grandchildren 60 days to work out a deal with their lender or vacate their three-bedroom house.

The Journal fills in the backstory a bit with this great context:

Modern-day treasure seekers invaded this area during the recent housing boom, snapping up houses and parcels of land, hoping to flip them to retirees and working families. Millionaire University, an unaccredited program in nearby Cape Coral, taught speculators from around the country how to buy and sell properties for huge profits. From 2000 to 2005, house prices in Cape Coral more than doubled.

Two years ago, the Lee County court system had about 1,900 foreclosure cases on the books. That number swelled to 24,000 by the beginning of this year.

Corkery had a wealth of goodies in his reporter’s notebook. This really paints a picture of the madhouse that is the foreclosure court:

“It’s like the Exodus,” said Ms. Hill Scott, a middle-school teacher who went into default after her monthly payments on her adjustable-rate mortgage reset. She now owes $3,300 a month, up from the $1,600 she was paying a year ago. She says she hasn’t made a mortgage payment since January 2008 and is in negotiations with her lender seeking a modification.

During a break in the hearing, lawyers used dollies to wheel in boxes containing hundreds of case files, which they piled onto tables and on the floor.

One lawyer, wearing a dark suit and untucked white shirt ran between the judge’s bench and the dozens of open boxes on the floor. His colleagues sat cross-legged on the courtroom floor, sorting through files.

And this:

The last homeowner to show up in Judge Carlin’s courtroom spoke through a Spanish interpreter. She said she wasn’t current on her mortgage, but was living in the house. The judge gave her 60 days to vacate. She didn’t say anything and returned to her seat “That’s all for today. Thank you for coming in,” the judge said.

The woman sat in the empty courtroom, covered her eyes and cried. Judge Carlin called a brief recess and returned to his chambers. Lawyers stacked more foreclosure cases on his bench for him to sign when he returned.

This is just a terrific job by the Journal getting down to ground zero and showing us what’s going on. We’re all numb to the drumbeat of foreclosure stuff by now, but this is an eye-opening piece.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.