Dave Kerner: Tone Down Sunshine Law, Raise Judges’ Retirement Age, Strip Rapists of Parental Rights
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Birthplace: Unincorporated Palm Beach County
Residence: Lake Worth
Education: University of Florida Levin College of Law, Juris Doctor
Previous Public Office: None
Did you know? Received his pilot license when he was 14, but hasn't had time to fly since he was about 21. ("Now, having to drive to Tallahassee all the time, I'm looking into it again!")
He’s not even 30 years old, but Dave Kerner’s already amassed an impressive array of accomplishments as a police officer, a special prosecutor, and an attorney in private practice, an experience reflected in his agenda for the 2013 legislative session.
When Kerner was sworn in as a police officer for the city of Alachua at 19 years old, still under the age when he could legally purchase his own bullets, he was following in the footsteps of his father, who had spent his entire career as an officer in Lake Worth. Kerner joined the force while studying political science at the University of Florida (UF), and credits his interest in the political process to his family background.
“I’ve always been involved in public service, since my father was a career police officer,” Kerner tells Sunshine State News. “Growing up, I was always involved in the community” – as a teenager he became a Democratic activist and at one point even joined the Civil Air Patrol at Lantana Airport, becoming a cadet commander – “and public service just became a passion for me.”
When he graduated from UF in 2006 – he worked night patrol while going to school during the day, often studying in his patrol car when there was little else to do – his department and the city of Alachua Chamber of Commerce named him “Police Officer of the Year." Kerner was the youngest officer to ever receive that distinction.
But “I think in the back of my mind I always wanted to be an attorney,” Kerner tells the News, as he recounts an evening when, while perusing the shelves at a local bookstore while patrolling the night shift, he came across a Law School Admission Test (LSAT) practice manual.
“I just started going through it, and decided to take the test,” he says. “I said if I can get into UF’s law school, that’d be the only reason I would leave the police force.”
After graduating law school, he continued to serve as a volunteer police officer, even while he was working as a special prosecutor for the Palm Beach County state attorney’s office. He works in private practice now, and his extensive criminal justice background was recognized by House Speaker Will Weatherford when he appointed Kerner to his top three committee requests: the Judiciary Committee and the subcommittees on Criminal Justice and Justice Appropriations.
Describing himself as “ecstatic” over the appointments, Kerner shared with the News an ambitious legislative agenda, beginning with HB 7005 (“Massage Establishments”), a bill originally sponsored by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee but which chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, placed Kerner in charge of shepherding through the legislative process.
Intended to curtail the operation of brothels which disguise themselves as "massage establishments," the bill would prohibit these establishments (with some exceptions) from operating between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and from being used as a person's "principal domicile.” It is the first bill of the 2013 session to have passed a House committee.
Another bill Kerner has filed, HB 361 (“Public Meetings/Criminal Justice Commissions”), modifies Florida’s Sunshine Law to exempt communications from certain members of county-level criminal justice commissions [CJC]. Kerner assures the News he’s no foe of government transparency, but says the current laws are having an unintended chilling effect on the ability of public officials to collaborate on law enforcement-related issues.
“In any other circuit [i.e., without a criminal justice commission], the state attorney, the chief judge, the sheriff, and the public defender would be free to talk with each other on a daily basis about any law enforcement-related issue,” he explains. “But simply by being a member of this [criminal justice] commission, they can no longer have this exchange of dialogue. It’s faulting us [i.e., Palm Beach County, the only county so far to have established a CJC] for being proactive in trying to address our law enforcement issues.”
Kerner says his proposed exemptions “would allow public elected officials to be able to talk with each other without having to [notify the public of] every conversation, just like it happens in every other county.”
Kerner tells the News he’s working on a bill with Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, which would strip convicted rapists of any parental claim they have to children born of rape. That bill is expected to be filed, in both chambers, in the coming weeks.
Finally, Kerner shares what he calls his “pet project,” albeit one he’s not sure whether he’ll be able to advance this legislative session: a constitutional amendment, put before the voters, which would raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75.
“Our judges are more than capable of serving past 70 years of age; they don’t automatically become senile at the age of 70,” Kerner explains, warning that Florida’s current constitutional mandates might be keeping qualified candidates from entering the judicial field. “If you have a very competent attorney who’s 55, 60, or 65 years of age, who wants to enter public service at the end of their career, they might be dissuaded from doing that if they know they have to retire in five years. It might be more worthwhile for them to remain in private practice.”
None of Kerner’s proposals are particularly “liberal” in their ideological orientation; another bill he’s already filed would even give tax breaks to businesses that relocate to the city of Lake Worth. That, and what he says he perceives as a policy of House leadership to let all or most members' bills get their fair hearing in the committee process, leaves him “very optimistic” at least some of those proposals will make their way into law.
“I’m a Democrat, and that means I have certain views on certain subjects, but we are better served as a state if I extend an open arm to the other side,” Kerner says of the bipartisan spirit he sees prevailing in the House. “You’re already seeing a byproduct of that effort, when I was tasked with leading the human trafficking bill. I think that bipartisan effort is going to pay good dividends in getting good policy pushed through this session.”
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (954) 235-9116.