by Glenn Tschimpke
In his early 20s, Emmett Ferguson was waiting for his wave. The avid surfer and Jacksonville native had just graduated from Florida State University and had his life in front of him. He had pondered a path in his father’s footsteps as a physician, but couldn’t get excited about it.
“It used to be a really great job — and it’s still probably a good job — but the doctors have lost a lot of control over what they do,” said Ferguson. “Basically, it’s up to the hospitals and then there’s a lot of liability. You just can’t do what you want to do. Medicine has kind of gotten like that. It was also a personal decision. Did I really want to do this for the rest of my life?”
So he moved to North Carolina and got a job as a sail boat instructor on Lake Jordan near Durham. He grew his hair long, shaved when it suited him and tried to figure out which way to steer his life.
If not medical school, why not law school? After a couple deeply-tanned years on the water, Ferguson was accepted to FSU’s law school. But before hitting the libris and learning Latin lingo of law, he got a golden retriever, named her M.O.R.G.A.N. (an acronym he can’t remember the meaning of) and came home to Jacksonville.
“I came home for eight months and lived at the beach,” he said. “All I did was surf.”
That and train M.O.R.G.A.N. how to hunt.
Once law school began, Ferguson’s life of seeming leisure clicked into high gear. There he befriended Don Mairs, now a Jacksonville private practitioner. Both graduated in 1988. Ferguson landed a job at the State Attorney’s Office. Mairs went to the Public Defender’s Office.
Ferguson’s first case as a prosecutor involved a man who would pleasure himself in the shadows of an apartment complex as he watched women. In defense of the man was none other than Mairs.
“He was defending this guy and I was prosecuting this guy,” laughed Ferguson. “It was just really fun the way that worked out.”
Not that law school or working as a prosecutor is “fun.” Ferguson’s calm demeanor betrays some of the struggles he encountered early in his legal career. From wanting to quit law school halfway through his second year to the loss of M.O.R.G.A.N. to an epileptic seizure, the difficult parts of life come slowly from the Ferguson.
“If I look back on it, there were struggles,” he notes. “Probably the lowest point was when I had just gotten a job at the State Attorney’s Office. We had to take the bar exam and at the time there were two sections. I failed both sections by a total of one point. I was going into my first trial and I was just devastated. Here I failed the bar and I had to try a case when I had never tried a case before. It was just a real growing experience. It helped my character, I think.”
Eight years as a prosecutor was enough. His experience with county court piqued his interest in the bench. In 1996, he tendered his resignation to State Attorney Harry Shorstein and ran a successful campaign for Duval County judge. Six years and hundreds of gavel swings later, Ferguson still enjoys his position on the bench.
“I really enjoy being a county court judge,” he said. “I just like being the people’s court judge. It’s a nice job. It really is.”
How about a book then?
“My dad’s written three books. I think I want to do that,” he said. “I want to write the memoirs of a county judge because of all the funny stories that come up. It really is a fun job and a humorous job at times.”
Funny like the country boy from MacClenny who came to Jacksonville for the weekend, got liquored up, lost his sense of direction and drove up to a police officer to ask for directions. He was arrested for DUI.
“He just wasn’t thinking,” he said. “Thank God he didn’t think too much.”
When Ferguson isn’t wearing the robe, look for him to suited up and on a surfboard paddling around the waters off Jacksonville’s beaches.
“It’s very therapeutic,” he explained. “You’re out there and usually the water is a little crisp in the fall or the spring and it’s very refreshing. It just clears your mind. If you have something that’s troubling you, you might think about it. But you get that magnesium in your skin and you feel just great. It’s just a wonderful feeling just being in the water and taking it all in.”
After Hurricane Floyd skirted North Florida in 1998 and most people were in evacuation mode, Ferguson suited up and paddled out.
“Probably the best day I ever surfed what when that hurricane evacuated the city,” he remembered. “It was just nice. The dolphins were surfing the waves. The waves were smooth — they must have been 10-15 foot waves. It wasn’t real hard to paddle out. It was just an epic day, as surfers would say.”
Although he’s 40, Ferguson claims to be a child at heart. A sunny day will almost always see him doing active, from fishing to hunting to motoring his boat around the St. Johns River and other inland waters. When dusk falls, he readily admits he likes sunsets. An urban professional who’s a child at heart, keeps an active lifestyle and loves to watch sunsets and full moons on his boat? Careful ladies, he’s taken.
After some ribbing from friends and family, he’s finally decided to tie the knot for good. The wedding to Julie Shuman is slated for April, but the honeymoon is “top secret.”
“She likes to surf, so I’m kind of thinking that might be a surf trip in itself.”
The two met in the courtroom.
“She was a court reporter and it was one of her first days she was assigned to a courtroom,” he said. “I was a judge for about a year and she was assigned to my courtroom for a jury trial. She came in and we kind of got to know each other just walking back and forth to the elevators. I couldn’t pursue her because she was in my courtroom. About a year of getting to know each other, she asked me out to the symphony one night. I couldn’t go to the symphony, but I figured it opened the door for that Friday.”
And the rest could be history.