Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard – the longest-serving state court chief justice in the nation – is retiring from the bench in March after nearly 27 years on the appellate bench and a quarter century in that top administrative position.
The chief justice announced Wednesday that he will leave the bench March 4, 2012.
Turning 65 on Christmas Eve, he said there was nothing specific that required him to retire at this time. His term as chief justice is set to expire in March, and the Judicial Nominating Commission is expected to begin discussing in the next month who should fill that administrative role. After joining the 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.
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’s weighed in years past with his family and this felt like the best time to leave.
“This is a natural thing … well, mostly natural when it’s secondary to serving out the full term,” he said. “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.”
He hasn’t made any plans on what his future holds, but said there’s “a lot I’m interested in doing.” Those plans will likely come once he leaves the bench, he said. Until that time, Shepard will continue in the chief justice role and, among other things, will give his final State of the Judiciary address in January.
“This has been a wonderful place to spend a life, and I’ve made so many friends here,” he said.
Many court employees learned of the news earlier this week and at the Indiana Statehouse on Wednesday morning after the announcement, many were emotional. State leaders including Gov. Mitch Daniels and Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman offered their thoughts about the chief’s retirement, as well as Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller.
"I was privileged to have been present at the investiture of Chief Justice Shepard in 1985 and he has fulfilled his pledge to transform the Indiana Supreme Court into one that is nationally respected and whose legal insight and analysis serves to lead the development of the law,” Zoeller said in a statement. “His tenure will be highly rated in the history of our state.”
Authoring more than 900 opinions during his time on the court and 68 law review articles, Shepard has ushered in monumental changes in the state’s judiciary during the past quarter century. He’s directed changes that have strengthened capital case standards, made the Supreme Court a “cert court” 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, and most recently in 2007, he co-chaired the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform with former Gov. Joe Kernan that led to the “Kernan-Shepard Report” on streamlining government.
“To say the justice system is stronger today because of Chief Justice Shepard’s three decades of dedication would be an understatement,” National Center for State Courts president Mary McQueen said. “He defined ‘justice’ not only for the citizens of Indiana and the United States – Chief Justice Shepard defined ‘justice’ for our generation.”
Before being appointed by Gov. Robert Orr to the state’s highest court, the Evansville native and seventh generation Hoosier served as a Vanderburgh Superior judge for five years. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1972, and after serving briefly as special assistant to the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, he returned to Indiana and worked as chief assistant to Evansville’s mayor until he took the bench at age 33.
The Judicial Nominating Commission will be taking applications for his successor and conduct interviews in February, and the governor will choose from a submitted list of three names the person who will become Indiana’s 107th justice. Once Shepard retires, Justices Brent Dickson will serve as interim chief justice until the nominating commission chooses the next person.