New chief judge starts at key time for circuit
By ANITA KUMAR
© St. Petersburg Times,
He's written a book considered by some traffic judges as the "bible" on DUI law. His daughter and wife are both attorneys. He presided over what is probably the longest-running misdemeanor trial in circuit history.
And he probably is the only Tampa Bay-area judge who can lay claim to one little-known distinction: His picture once appeared in Playboy.
This is Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge David A. Demers, who today takes over as the judicial circuit's new chief judge. He will celebrate his 20th anniversary on the bench later this month. "I'm not tired of what I'm doing," he said from his office in the downtown St. Petersburg courthouse. "But I wanted a chance to serve my fellow judges."
If Demers (pronounced De-MURS) is not as well-known as his predecessor, outgoing Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer, his career on the bench has been marked with distinguished achievement and time in the limelight.
That's where Playboy comes in.
Back in 1983, when he was still a county judge, Demers presided over the trial of three exotic dancers charged with violating Pinellas' anti-nudity ordinance.
During the trial, a dancer bent over in front of the bench to show Demers that her outfit did not expose anything too revealing. The photo of the scene was republished around the country, including Playboy's "The Year in Sex."
Told that readers couldn't see his nameplate without a magnifying glass, the judge told a reporter in 1983, "Whew! I'm glad to hear that!"
If the demonstration was a legal necessity, Demers was a model of decorum, posting bailiffs at the doors so no youngster would stumble onto the scene by accident.
He dismissed the charges against the dancers.
That piece of trivia aside, all legal eyes are again on Demers as he replaces the longest-serving chief judge in circuit history, taking a job that sets the public tone for the local judiciary.
He takes the top job at a particularly important time for the 55-judge circuit.
Demers will help oversee a new five-judge unified family court division, in which each judge will be assigned to families by ZIP code and will handle those families' legal matters, such as juvenile and divorce cases. The new unified court opens Monday with four judges in Pinellas and one in Pasco.
The program is designed to run efficiently so that, for example, three separate court appearances in front of three separate judges will be reduced to one judge on one day to handle the three matters.
Demers also oversees a drug court still in its infancy.
The chief judge is largely an administrative and budgetary post. The chief has the power to assign judges to the various divisions of the circuit, from criminal to civil to juvenile courts.
The chief receives no extra pay (circuit judges earn $130,000 a year) and has no authority to review or overturn the decisions of the circuit's other judges.
But, local lawyers say, don't underestimate the power of the bully pulpit and the ability to set an agenda and catch the public ear.
"I'm hoping we'll continue to have a progressive chief judge in what is a progressive circuit," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "Judge Demers has always been a pleasure to practice in front of. I just hope it works out for him and us."
Demers said he plans to modernize equipment in the courtrooms and assist the court clerk's office with allowing electronic filing.
Demers, 54, is soft-spoken, thoughtful and measured in his judgment and consistently scores high in polls by lawyers rating judges on their judicial knowledge and demeanor on the bench.
He was previously considered for posts on the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland and the Florida Supreme Court but said he only recently considered running for chief judge.
Most area lawyers describe Demers as a scholarly judge who wrote a well-respected book, Florida DUI Handbook, that some traffic judges keep with them on the bench and sometimes refer to as the traffic law "bible."
"He's a pretty impressive guy," said veteran criminal defense attorney Joe McDermott. "He's just a real literate, intelligent, hard-working judge. You don't hear any ill words about him. He's well-respected by all the litigants in his courtroom."
Demers has done considerable appellate work and has helped pioneer computer research in the circuit, McDermott said.
Demers won election to the chief judge post in February by more than a 2-to-1 margin over Circuit Judge Ray Ulmer. He officially begins his two-year term this week but already started sharing some duties with Schaeffer, who served six years as chief.
As chief judge, Demers said he plans to preside over criminal or civil cases only if he is needed because of a crowded docket. He will continue to handle some appeals from county to circuit court.
Demers was a county judge for 13 years before then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the circuit bench in 1994.
As a county judge, he presided over what is probably the longest misdemeanor trial in circuit history: the battery trial of former U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle, which lasted nearly three weeks.
Merkle was acquitted of the charge.
As a circuit judge, Demers has served in civil, juvenile, family and probate divisions. He is serving the first year of a six-year term.
He is a 1971 graduate of the Stetson University College of Law, where Schaeffer also earned her law degree.
Demers, who grew up in DeLand and lives in St. Petersburg, is married to Susan Demers, the director of the legal assistance program at St. Petersburg Junior College. The two used to be in private practice together.
They have a 29-year-old daughter, Kristi, who also practices law and lives in St. Petersburg.
- Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report, which also includes information from Times files.
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