Being a judge wasn’t something Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard originally had on his list of lifetime interests.
But an unexpected path led him to a position he says has been a “dream job.” Now, after 27 years on the Indiana Supreme Court and a quarter century as chief justice, he is ready to start the next chapter in his life.
With his 65th birthday approaching on Christmas Eve, Shepard announced Dec. 7 that he would be stepping down from the state’s highest court on March 4, the date that his current five-year term as chief justice is scheduled to expire.
“He could have left years ago and still went down as a great justice in our state’s history, but he’s continued to have a remarkable impact
on our legal community and cause of justice everywhere,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said.
Pointing to the court’s calendar and timing of the chief justice appointment as factors, Shepard said nothing specific pushed him to step down now. But it’s something he has discussed with his family and this felt like the best time to leave.
After joining the appellate bench in September 1985, Shepard became chief justice in March 1987 and has been reappointed four times. He was last retained as a justice in 2008 and his term would have run through 2018.
“I’ve heard others say that they felt it was just time to let someone else take over, and that’s how it feels for me,” he said. “This is a natural thing … well, mostly natural when it’s secondary to serving out the full term. As a family we’ve faced the question, ‘Is this something we still want to be committed to?’ The answer has been yes, but we decided this year it’s time to let someone else take the lead.”
Shepard will continue in the chief justice role until his retirement in March. He will give his final State of the Judiciary address Jan. 11.
“I’ve committed most of my adult life to this, trying to improve the quality of justice for our state and occasionally for other places,” he said. “It’s proven every day to have been the right choice.”
A Princeton University undergraduate who earned a degree from Yale Law School in 1972, Shepard served briefly as special assistant to the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation before returning to Indiana and working as chief assistant to the mayor of Evansville. He made unsuccessful bids for political office before his eventual judicial election, something that a friend convinced him might be a good idea in 1980 despite his initial thought he was too young and inexperienced as a solo practitioner. He became Vanderburgh Superior judge in 1981 and stayed at the trial court level for four years until Republican Gov. Robert Orr selected him to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Donald Hunter. After being on the court for a little more than a year, the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission chose Shepard to succeed Chief Justice Richard Givan for that administrative post.
The rest is history, Shepard says with a laugh.
His legal legacy
Authoring nearly 900 opinions during his time on the court and 68 law review articles, Shepard has ushered in monumental changes in the state’s judiciary. He’s directed changes that have strengthened capital case standards, made the Supreme Court one of “last resort” where it has discretion over most appeals, and opened up the appellate courts’ doors to cameras and online live broadcasts during oral arguments. Shepard also co-created the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity in 1997. In 2007, he co-chaired the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform with former Gov. Joe Kernan, an effort that led to publication of the “Kernan-Shepard Report” on streamlining government.
The chief justice says that many of the accomplishments during his tenure – achievements he’s credited for shepherding – have largely been ideas and initiatives from his fellow jurists and lawyers.
“I don’t know how many times people have come through that door with an idea, and all I’ve really had to say was ‘OK, I like it.’ The broad change we’ve seen has been the product of hundreds of others in our legal community, and I’m proud we can use this time to celebrate how all of us have brought us to this point.”
The chief justice said the nicest thing he has ever heard someone say is that Indiana’s high court “cares about the cases it never sees,” and he has worked diligently through the years to make that impact outside the court more noticeable.
Those in the legal community say Shepard’s reach goes far beyond any case or specific Indiana issue and extends to every level of the practice of law in and outside the state. They say he’s a trailblazer who has made a difference in everything from court structure, practicing standards and continuing legal education.
Zoeller recalls attending the chief’s investiture ceremony in 1985 and Shepard saying how his goal was to have judges and courts throughout the country look to what Indiana was doing. That’s exactly what Shepard has done, and he’s also improved the foundation of the judiciary in Indiana in working with the legislative and executive leaders.
Dave Remondini, who was the chief’s justice’s counsel and court spokesman for more than a decade before becoming second-in-command at the Division of State Court Administration in 2007, struggled to find the words to describe Shepard’s impact. Starting as a reporter covering the court and Statehouse in the late 1980s, Remondini has been a key observer of Shepard’s time leading the Indiana judiciary.
“Groundbreaking and innovative come to mind, but really I think we’re light years from where we were then,” he said, noting that the most monumental change has been the chief justice’s work to make the court turn outward from itself.
“People can always find ways to improve the courts, but looking back, the citizens of Indiana have infinitely better access to justice at the courthouse door than they did before,” he said.
Remondini said Shepard’s leadership and vision are largely responsible for that, and he’s always been a “force-enabler” for the judiciary and legal community. It’s a shame Shepard never served beyond Indiana, he said.
“It’s very clear that we’ve been privileged to have him as chief justice for so long, but I think it’s a shame he never served anywhere on the national stage,” Remondini said. “He would have brought the same class, common sense and civility to any appellate bench. The impact he’s had on history could have been even greater, and I think that’s a loss for the country.”
The seven-member Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission, which Shepard chairs, will begin interviewing candidates in February and Gov. Mitch Daniels will select the state’s 107th justice from three finalists. The commission will subsequently choose who from the high court will succeed Shepard as chief justice.
As for Shepard, he hasn’t made any decisions yet as to his future.
He said there’s “a lot I’m interested in doing,” and he might end up doing more than one thing. But he said those plans will be made closer to the time he leaves the bench. He plans to continue in a senior judge capacity, something many other judges have done after their official tenures comes to a close. He’s also not sure if he will embrace the idea of traveling and talking about judicial independence, something other past judges at the state and national levels have done.
One thing is certain for now: he’s not planning to leave Indiana, even for the appealing notion of teaching out East where he received his undergraduate and legal education.
“This is our home,” he said, reflecting on his being the seventh generation to live in Indiana. “I don’t know what the next chapter is going to be, but this has been a wonderful place to spend a life.”•