Standing in the same spot that he has annually for the past 25 years, Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard delivered his State of the Judiciary Jan. 11.
In many ways, the speech was the same as always, with his assessment of the judiciary’s accomplishments and challenges in the past year. But this year was more significant for the Hoosier legal community.
This was the final address that Shepard would give as chief justice before his retirement in March. Judges and attorneys throughout Indiana paid closer attention this time, wondering what Shepard – the only chief justice a generation of lawyers has known – might say in his last State of the Judiciary.
The night before, Gov. Mitch Daniels gave his eighth and final State of the State address and thanked Shepard for what he described as “a quarter century of fairness, firmness and farsightedness.”
Giving a 27-minute speech that he titled “On the Way to Something Better,” the chief justice focused on the process of building a more unified and purposeful court system. He rattled off achievements that the court and legal community have experienced, and the list reflected not only the past 12 months, but many of the changes during Shepard’s tenure.
“The yesterday of Indiana’s courts lasted largely unchanged over decades. As in many other states, our courts were a collection of silos that rarely connected,” he said. “That began to change about a generation ago, and over time Indiana’s courts have become less like a collection of Lone Rangers and more like a group of colleagues with a common purpose.”
Shepard praised court reform efforts to unify state court jurisdictions and allow for more collaboration. He detailed court technology improvements that include a statewide case management system that in part gives women’s shelters direct access to the Protective Order Registry. Last year, 9,300 email or text messages about protective orders went out to domestic violence victims, and that’s just one of the many improvements Indiana’s embraced that he says is “literally saving lives.”
The chief justice cited family law and criminal justice examples to show how the state judiciary is better equipped to resolve disputes today than before. He said Indiana has more volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates than ever, with the largest group of 1,010 volunteers being trained in 2011.
Shepard talked about court reform efforts and judicial opinions that have helped bolster Indiana’s national reputation. He said the Indiana Rules of Evidence and consistent caselaw have provided guidance for trial courts and lawyers, and that’s helped hold down litigation costs and improve access to the legal system overall. The chief justice also discussed Indiana State Bar Association efforts to create the first statewide lawyer-leadership academy with the help of Justice Steven David and said that through the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity, the state has doubled its number of minority attorneys. Shepard said the lawmakers and judges he’s worked with over time have been gracious, and that allows him to now “leave the stage with full confidence that we will succeed in building Indiana as a safe and prosperous and decent place.”
The chief justice’s address was emotional at times, as he mentioned his friendship with the governor and lieutenant governor and being able to lead a committee with former Gov. Joe Kernan that issued the Kernan-Shepard report on local government reform in 2007.
“Could there be a better cause, a more worthwhile way to ‘spend and be spent’ in life than working toward greater justice?” he said.
After a minute-long standing ovation, those who heard the speech praised Shepard.
Sen. Lindel Hume, D-Princeton, a 38-year legislator who has observed every State of the Judiciary going back to before Shepard’s time, said this chief justice changed his view on attending the annual speech.
“I used to just really hate coming to this, but once he became chief justice, it started being a real pleasure because it was certainly a different approach,” Hume said after the speech.
“That was probably good, because there is no question in my mind that he is the best chief justice the state of Indiana has ever had, and he is probably the best chief justice in the nation,” he said with a laugh.
Lawyer-legislator Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, was emotional as he watched the address, noting that as a lawmaker or as a practicing civil attorney in Morgan County, he’s seen all of Shepard’s speeches. Both are nearing the ends of their terms and retiring this year from their public service posts. Shepard thanked Foley in the speech for his legislative work through the years.
“I have a lot of admiration and appreciation for the accessibility he’s offered through the years,” Foley said. “His dedication to improving the judiciary, the bar and all the areas he mentioned has been marvelous and I’ve really enjoyed seeing that evolve.”
Allen Circuit Judge Tom Felts described it as a special day being able to attend and receive a mention from the chief justice about his work launching a family mediation effort for divorces involving children, which is now being used in 33 counties. The trial judge has attended 14 prior speeches, but Felts said he told one of his judicial colleagues as Shepard entered the room what an honor it was to be at this historic, final address. Felts saw the mark of a true leader in Shepard, as he didn’t take direct credit for the judiciary’s accomplishments but highlighted the work of his colleagues – though Felts argues many were inspired and motivated by the chief justice.
“He’s a class act and will be very difficult to replace, and though he’ll be sorely missed, I’m happy he is able to go out on his own terms at a time of his own choosing,” Felts said. “Specifically, with his head held high in the satisfaction of a job well done.”•