By KATHRYN ACREE
Inverness resident Judge Jim Fuhrmeister has served as Shelby County’s Probate Judge since March 2008. He was appointed to the position by Governor Bob Riley following the death of Fuhrmeister’s wife, Patricia, who had served as Probate Judge since 1994.
A Birmingham-Southern College graduate, Fuhrmeister has called Shelby County home since first moving to the Alabaster area in the early 1970s. Upon completing his law degree at Birmingham School of Law, he worked as an assistant district attorney in the Shelby County District Attorney’s office from 1981 to 1987.
We met recently with Fuhrmeister at his office in the Columbiana courthouse to discuss his interests, his family and why he is passionate about continuing the work of the probate court by running in this month’s election for his first full term as probate judge.
What first led you into working at the D.A.’s office?
When Patti Smith left the district attorney’s office to become a judge, I applied for that opening. It was a very transitional time for Shelby County as it was experiencing a lot of growth. During those years I prosecuted everything from speeding tickets to death penalty cases. I have a very real understanding of the importance of the cases in this courthouse and the effect on people’s lives.
When did you move to the Inverness area?
Patricia and I moved there in 1985; our oldest son, Chris, was six months old. There was very little on 280 then; you had to go to Hoover for groceries!
After being in private practice in the Meadow Brook area for several years, you stepped in to fulfill Patricia’s term as probate judge. How did you go about continuing the work she’d begun?
Many people shared with me that I needed to continue her legacy. That’s been something that came naturally to me; we were married almost 25 years. It’s a natural thing that I think I’ve put my own personality on. Not long after I was appointed, I was shown the file where the probate office was trying to get a mental health court started. I knew that was something very much needed that the community would respond to. It came together as a project I was part of with Leadership Shelby County.
Explain the purpose of mental health court.
Mental health court is for Shelby County residents who have been charged with lesser crimes. Typically we’ll see domestic violence, minor assaults, minor theft crimes or drug crimes. They’re in the criminal justice system but have a diagnosed mental illness. It’s a voluntary program on their part; they can go through the criminal justice system if they choose. But, if they choose to apply to mental health court, they fill out an application and we have a case manager and we have a team.
The team is made up of me, a representative of the public defender’s office, a representative of the district attorney’s office and a case manager with a background in the mental health field. The district attorney has absolute veto power. But if a defendant is accepted into the program, then they begin the steps of the process.
The defendants come to court every Tuesday. They are subject to random drug screens and are in the program at least a year. My goal is help provide structure in the defendants’ lives and emphasize to them that there are rules in life you have to follow, no matter who you are. When they get to the end, if they realize they can do these things, if they stay on their medicines, I can say we’ve seen some remarkable things.
The probate court takes on many tough issues—estates, conservatorships and guardianships, for example. What types of cases are you most passionate about?
Adoptions. I was adopted out of a children’s home, and I tell folks when we’re doing adoptions that I’m an adopted person. I can still hear my parents sharing with me the joy they felt when I was adopted. I see the process through the eyes of the parents and the kid’s eyes. It’s very rewarding.
Share a little about your family life now with your sons.
Both of my sons went to Oak Mountain High School. Chris is 26 and has gone back to school. He blogs, writes about Auburn sports and lives in the Highland Park area. Will is now 20 and in Auburn’s Industrial Design program. I’m really proud of both of them. Something we enjoy together is cooking a great meal.
Now I’m not a great cook, but I can put a good meal on the table. My boys can do the same, and we like to get creative. It’s something we have good memories of with Patricia and plan to carry on.