Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

State News

December 13, 2011

Justice was innovative

Last Wednesday, after longtime Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard announced his impending retirement, he was showered with praise as a visionary.

But what those words hid was how irking that vision was to people he pushed, pulled, and nagged into doing better. 

In his 26 years on the high court – 24 as the chief – Shepard pushed the state to provide better defense for poor people and convicted killers, exhorted the courts to protect the rights of litigants who couldn't speak the English language, toughened the standards for practicing lawyers, and convinced the legislature to fund an affirmative action program for minorities to open up the hidebound profession of the law.

That's just a fraction of the things the Republican-appointed jurist did that raised eyebrows. It doesn't include the 2005 speech he made to the legislature in which he said Hoosiers had too long settled for "good enough" justice.

Or how he irritated some state legislators and local politicians when a 2007 blue-ribbon commission he chaired called for antiquated township government to be wiped out and small schools consolidated to save taxpayer money.

Gary Roberts, dean at the Indiana University law school in Indianapolis said Shepard is "widely regarded as one of –  if not the – most prominent and effective chief justices in the nation."

But earning that reputation has come with some push-back, Roberts said, from critics who think Shepard stepped too far out of the traditional judicial role.

"I, for one, think he was absolutely right to do it," Roberts said. "Everything Randy touches is better because of it."

Shepard is willing to hear the gone-too-far criticism. But as he approaches his 65th birthday on Christmas Eve, he doesn't spend time apologizing for crafting the role he's taken since first appointed the late Gov. Robert Orr in 1987.

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