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Enumclaw judge bangs gavel for final time

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By Kevin Hanson

The Courier-Herald

As he stepped down after 12 years of service as judge in Enumclaw Municipal Court, David Berner had nothing but nice things to say about the experience.

And others had high praise for the retiring judge.

And all the while, Berner has seen his duty as the highest form of community service - an opportunity to make a difference in the community upon which he heaps lavish praise.

Municipal courts might occupy the lowest rung in the judicial system, but they're at the opposite end when it comes to dealing with people on a personal level, Berner explained during a recent interview in the tiny, City Hall office he's about to vacate.

“I've heard it said this is where people get the most justice,” he commented. That's no knock on the higher courts, Berner said - it's just that “Municipal Court is closer to the people, it's part of the community.”

Municipal Court gets its home-town feel due to the fact it handles the lowest level of crimes: misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and infractions. Misdemeanors can include such offenses as disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana or possession of drug paraphernalia; they can carry a sentence of up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both; gross misdemeanors include reckless driving, domestic violence and driving while intoxicated; they can bring up to a year in jail, $5,000 fine or both; infractions include all traffic violations.

Berner said his goal was to teach when he could and offer someone a break when it was warranted, but to deal harshly with those who seemed intent on ignoring the law and its consequences.

“The key thing,” he said, “is I like to help someone become a productive member of the community. And the best way is to help them get on their own two feet.”

Berner admits he's very willing to help young people who have made mistakes, those who have what it takes to learn from their errors and avoid a repeat appearance.

Asked if he's aware of his reputation in the judicial community, Berner believes people perceive his as being “very fair.”

“I'm willing to give a break when it's going to work, but I can be stern when I have to be,” he said. “I'm not afraid to send people to jail, although I don't like to.”

To those who have burned all their second chances and are destined for time behind bars, “I tell them ‘you've put me in a box. I don't have anything else to offer you,'” Berner said.

Someone who has witnessed Berner's job performance closely is Commander Eric Sortland, who has spent 22 years with the Enumclaw Police Department. Over the years, “I've had hundreds and hundreds of hearings in front of dozens of judges,” Sortland said, “and David Berner is one of the finest judges in the region.”

Sortland said Berner is “very detail-oriented” and asks a lot of the police, forcing cases to be precisely filed. When police have done their job and someone is proven guilty, Berner has rewarded that effort by imposing substantial penalties on miscreants, Sortland said.

“”David's got a lot of teacher in him,” Sortland added. “Officers fine-tune their craft under his tutelage.”

Berner is a Midwest native who has come to love the scenery and slower pace found in the Pacific Northwest. “This is a wonderful place to live and to raise kids,” he said.

Appreciative of what the region has offered his family, Berner has never been shy about giving something back. He served the city for eight years as a member of the Board of Adjustments and spent a decade on the board of trustees for the community library.

“It's all about community service,” Berner said.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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