Sometimes when Circuit Judge Steven Fahlgren looks at the young faces in his courtroom, he sees himself.
The innocent victims of a broken marriage, children hurt by a dysfunctional family life.
He knows those wounds don’t heal easily. Sometimes, they don’t heal at all.
The family court judge knows those wounds can shape a person, both good and bad.
Fahlgren’s parents split when he was 8 or 9 years old. He didn’t talk to his father for a decade, and that was only after Fahlgren looked him up.
His mother and father were both married three times. Fahlgren has 17 siblings and step siblings, some he’s never met and others whose names he doesn’t know.
“I was bent, dinged, just about broken,” Fahlgren said. “But for whatever reason, I wasn’t.”
Part of that reason is linked to Fahlgren’s determination, part is tied to his strong faith.
It was God who sent him on a life-changing mission to Argentina. Who gave Fahlgren the strength to leave a thriving law practice in Orlando and become a country lawyer in his wife’s hometown of Hilliard.
And it was God who put Fahlgren in family court, a place he didn’t want to be but realizes it’s where he’s needed now.
Because of his background, he can offer a lot of perspectives. The forgotten child in the middle, a loving husband who’s been married more than 24 years and a dedicated father of three children.
He got the chance after applying to be a judge a half-dozen times. Finally, on his 50th birthday, Fahlgren received the long-awaited call from the governor.
Growing up in Illinois, Fahlgren started working when he was 12. Early on, it was to help ends meet at home. Later, it was a way to pay for college.
“There was no silver spoon within a mile of where I was born and raised,” said Fahlgren, whose investiture was Thursday.
And, there was no contact with his father.
“After my dad left, I did not hear from him again,” the judge said. “So, I didn’t get a card or letter from him ever until college.”
In high school, Fahlgren decided he want to be an FBI agent. He was intrigued by the agency’s work to stop organized crime, corruption and espionage.
He thought going to law school would be a natural segue, but his undergraduate degree took a little longer than expected.
Fahlgren first attended school in Illinois where he grew up. When his uncle told Fahlgren his father might be in South Florida, he reached out to the man who had deserted him.
The two reunited and Fahlgren stayed in South Florida for a couple of years, attended community college and received his associate’s degree in computer science.
Then came a three-year stint from 1986-89 in the Army, where Fahlgren planned to get his four-year degree and three years’ experience as a counter-intelligence agent.
He took night classes at Fort Bragg and in South Korea. When he left the Army as a sergeant, Fahlgren enrolled at the University of Florida, where he received his bachelor’s degree in political science.
It’s also where he met his wife, the woman he calls “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Moving from the city to the country
Fahlgren met Kimberly when they were both resident assistants at Beaty Towers on the UF campus.
She was 18. He was six-and-a-half years older than her and had just returned from South Korea, certain of one thing.
“I was not getting married. I was not getting married. I was not getting married,” he said.
The two started dating in August and were engaged six months later, on Valentine’s Day 1991.
Less than three months later, on the day Fahlgren was receiving his political science degree, he skipped graduation and got married. They have three children: Caleb, 15; Joshua, 13; and Abigail, 11.
Over a decade's time, Fahlgren built a thriving consumer protection law firm in Orlando, where his website was fortheconsumer.com.
“I lived and breathed suing car dealers who cheated people and credit bureaus when they didn’t follow the law,” he said.
Even as the practice was growing, Fahlgren said, he always felt he and his wife were destined to take care of her parents in Hilliard.
But first came a mission trip to Argentina. He kept telling the people going on the trip he would pray for them, but he didn’t want to go.
Then he became worried he if he didn’t go, he might be punished by God. Driven by that concern, he went.
Fahlgren said he was blessed beyond belief, with being able to see people’s lives change right before his eyes.
That trip strengthened his faith enough to leave Orlando and set up a firm in Hilliard, where his wife’s family had lived for five generations.
It was far different than what he had in Orlando. “When you’re in the middle of a small town, you’re a country lawyer,” he said.
And when you’re in a small town, Fahlgren said, “People will tell you that you will starve to death if you don’t do family law.”
He didn’t want to practice family law, not with his family background.
But he conceded. At first he took only uncontested cases with no children involved.
Over time, he rationalized he could handle contested cases “because I would never lose sight of the kids who are at issue,” he said.
Family law ultimately became a third of his practice.
‘Minimize the pain to kids’
Fahlgren first applied to be a judge in 2009, but didn’t make it past the first round with the Judicial Nominating Commission.
He realized he needed more seasoning and didn’t apply again until 2013, he said. Each time, he made it out of the JNC round, but faced “great candidates,” including County Court judges seeking a Circuit Court spot.
It soon became obvious why he didn’t get selected before Jan. 28. “I think the governor was waiting for my birthday. I think all those other times he just knew,” he laughed.
He vividly remembers getting that call at his office during a meeting with a client and his paralegal, who is now his judicial assistant.
The area code showed 850, but that was the same Tallahassee area code he had seen many times before when an assistant general counsel would call to say better luck next time.
This time, though, he heard: “Hello, this is Gov. Scott.”
Fahlgren couldn’t believe it. It was probably 60 seconds, he said, before he could finally say, “Hello, governor.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t hang up on me,” Fahlgren laughed.
When the conversation was over, Fahlgren was so shaken, he dropped his new iPhone 6 Plus. His wife was in a class, but he wanted to send her a message to tell her the news. Problem was, he was so shaken up, he couldn’t text for several minutes.
His heart was racing like never before, Fahlgren said. This from a man who had jumped out of airplanes with the 82nd Airborne, rappelled down a mountain, nearly drowned on a kayak trip.
He resigned as town attorney for Hilliard and spent the next month farming out his cases.
By Feb. 25, he was starting to shadow other judges.
A week later, he was in family court. A place he knew he was perfect for because he could listen to the cases and think about the impact on the kids.
It’s not where he wants to spend his judicial career. But for now, he loves it.
“I think I’m doing some good in minimizing the heartbreak,” he said.
Fahlgren tears up when he talks about sometimes seeing himself in the children’s faces.
“It’s painful,” he said. “So I really want to do good and minimize the pain to kids.”
He also talks about the need for both parents to have a meaningful relationship with their children.
And he “can get excited” when he thinks a parent or the parent’s family is trying to interfere with the other parent’s time with a child.
“To me, it’s very distressing, because I’m that kid,” Fahlgren said.
Neither of Fahlgren’s parents were at his investiture Thursday. His alcoholic mother has passed away and he has cut ties with his father.
However, he remains close to a stepmother and stepfather. For Fahlgren, family is about relationsips, not just blood.