Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

State News

December 13, 2011

Justice was innovative

(Continued)

Instead, the history-lover tells a favorite story about 19th century poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who found himself behind bars for protesting slavery by not paying a state poll tax.

When Thoreau's friend, fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, went to visit him in jail, Emerson reportedly asked, "Henry, what are you doing in there?"

Shepard finishes the story with relish: "Thoreau replied, 'Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?' "

Born a Hoosier, and educated at Princeton and Harvard universities before returning to southwest Indiana where he became a trial court judge, Shepard has made history as the nation's longest serving state chief justice. 

Joel Schumm, an Indiana University law school professor said Shepard has had a profound impact, beyond the 900 court opinions and 64 law review articles he's authored.

Schumm said Shepard pushed the court away from its past political partisanship and changed the kind of cases it heard. 

When Shepard first arrived, more than 90 percent of the cases were automatic appeals from criminal defendants protesting their long sentences. Now half the cases the court hears involve civil matters, from custody disputes to contract fights.

"It means the court is able to shape law in a way that ensures consistency around the state," Schumm said. "It allows the court to truly become the court of last resort, deciding significant matters of statewide importance."

Shepard remains on the bench until his current term – his fifth – runs out in March. He'll be chairing a judicial nominating commission that will vet applications to fill the justice spot on the court he's vacating. 

There are already rumors that his job as chief justice could be taken by the newest member on the court: Justice Steven David, a former Boone County trial court judge appointed in late 2010.  Like Shepard, David sees the court as a force for good that can make government live up to its obligations.

Shepard isn't saying his preference. Instead, he's focused on finishing up what he calls "a dream job."

 "You hope your life is used in a way that's both intrigruing and useful," Shepard said. "I couldn't have asked for more."

Maureen Hayden is the CNHI Statehouse Bureau chief. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com  

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