Five million homes. That’s how many American residences have been claimed by foreclosure since the housing crisis took hold four years ago. In south Florida, however, things aren’t as bad as they could have been, thanks to Judge Lee Haworth. Just as the housing market began to collapse in 2007, Haworth assumed the top job in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, which oversees three of the state’s 67 counties. As chief judge, Haworth saw the number of new foreclosure lawsuits in his circuit rise from 900 in 2006 to 8,500 just two years later. He decided to do something about it.
“Haworth was on the forefront of sanity,” says Matthew Weidner, a foreclosure attorney in the state. With nothing happening on the national level to combat the flood of foreclosures, Haworth wrote a unique requirement in 2008 that banks meet with homeowners about their options before filing for foreclosure. Not only did roughly 25 percent of people facing foreclosure in Haworth’s circuit resolve their cases this way, but the program became the framework for the statewide Residential Foreclosure Mediation Program that the Florida Supreme Court enacted in 2010.
When it became clear that banks were purposely filing incomplete, inaccurate paperwork in foreclosure filings, Haworth again took the lead. Rather than letting the banks slide and unlawfully seize people’s homes, Haworth dismissed any and all such cases and required lenders to repay the filing fees and start from scratch. He also convinced lawyers to volunteer to review all foreclosure filings for mistakes. The program, unofficially dubbed “Stop the Slop,” raised lenders’ paperwork compliance rate from 50 percent to nearly 90 percent in just a few years. Because of this, Haworth’s jurisdiction “will have a lot less problems than other counties,” says Weidner.
While the foreclosure crisis has demanded most of his energy, Haworth’s work as chief judge has also included revamping the local foster care program and creating a program that diverts qualified combat veterans from the criminal justice system into treatment programs for post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and alcohol or drug problems.
Haworth pulled off all these programs despite an extremely slim budget: Less than 1 percent of the state budget is put toward Florida’s judicial branch. But budget cuts and big banks aside, Haworth, who stepped down as chief judge in July but still oversees foreclosure cases, says one of the hardest things about being a judge is that you “have to follow the law even though you see the hardship that goes along with doing so.”
— Caroline Cournoyer
Photo by Mark Wemple
In this clip from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Judge Haworth discusses how the state budget affects the court system.