Shepard leaving Indiana Supreme Court 

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice - Randall T. Shepard
  • Indiana Supreme Court Chief JusticeRandall T. Shepard

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard looks tired.

It is the afternoon of the day he announced his retirement from the Indiana Supreme Court. When he steps down on March 4, he will have served as chief justice for 25 years and have been on the court for 27 years.

All day, people — public officials, friends, other well wishers and, alas, reporters — have been stopping by his chambers. They all want to talk about something Shepard doesn't care much to talk about.

Himself.

"If I may deflect the personal direction of your question," he says when I ask him about his accomplishments on the court.

Throughout the interview, seven words — "I don't like to talk about myself" — become a refrain.

Instead, he wants to talk about how the Supreme Court transformed itself. He speaks with satisfaction about how, on his watch, the court became an interpreter of constitutional and legal principles.

When he became chief justice, Indiana law required the Supreme Court to review every criminal case that resulted in a sentence of more than 10 years. That left the court clogged and unable to resolve ongoing disputes about the meaning of the Indiana State Constitution or its laws — which is generally the primary function of a Supreme Court.

When he came to the state's highest bench, Shepard says, 93 percent of the court's load were perfunctory reviews of criminal cases.

"That left us little time to do anything else," he said.

Now, he says, the Supreme Court's workload is divided almost evenly between criminal and civil cases and the court has established itself as the vehicle for determining both the meaning and application of state law.

Observers cite that as a revolutionary change in the state's history. It didn't come about without a struggle.

Shepard's drive to change the court's role split the Supreme Court in the late 1980s and provoked controversy. A fellow justice, Alfred J. Pivarnik, accused Shepard of having drug and drinking problems. Pivarnik also hinted that Shepard was gay.

"It was certainly a very disagreeable year or so," Shepard says now with a grimace.

"Disagreeable" is an understatement.

While the battle raged, almost everything about Shepard — right down to the way he walked — became fodder for commentary and gossip. I interviewed him about the episode nearly 10 years after the fight. Even after a decade had passed, he still talked about it with a furrowed brow.

He won the battle though, which culminated with his re-election to the Supreme Court. Now the state's highest court is what it is because he led it there.

His supporters say that he turned the Supreme Court into a substantial force and cite his advocacy for the judicial branch of state government as his legacy.

Critics argue that, while Shepard said again and again that he wanted the Supreme Court to hear cases that would demonstrate that state law could provide more protection for individual liberty than federal law could, the rulings from the court never reflected that.

No one, though, argues that he been anything less than a transformative figure.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller describes Shepard as kind of an Indiana version of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.

"The judicial branch is now an equal branch of government in Indiana. It wasn't before. His leadership did that," Zoeller told me earlier in the day.

When I mention Zoeller's comments to him, Shepard smiles.

"That's very nice of him," the chief justice.

Then he returns to his refrain and says he doesn't like talking about himself.

About the only personal thing Shepard does want to talk about his dislike of the word "retirement." He says he wants to do something when he leaves the court in a few months, but he doesn't know what it is yet. He says he won't do traditional retirement activities.

"I don't plan shuffleboard or anything like that," he says.

As we're wrapping up, I suggest that the word "transition" might work better than "retirement."

He smiles.

"I like that," Chief Justice Shepard says.

Maybe he does like it. Or maybe he's just happy that he doesn't have to talk about himself any more.

The preceding feature story updates the following spot news story filed Dec. 7, 2011.

Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard said Wednesday that he would retire from the bench in the spring.

The announcement that Shepard, who has been serving on the Supreme Court since 1985 and has been chief justice since 1987, brought immediate reaction from around the state.

Gov. Mitch Daniels released a statement praising Shepard, who will leave the court on March 4, 2012.

"Most Hoosiers recognize the historic place Randy Shepard will always hold in Indiana judicial history. What fewer people may know is there is no more nationally respected Supreme Court judge in any state in America, and this has been so for a very long time," Daniels' statement read.

"I look forward to identifying and appointing a person of highest character and quality, but I have no illusions we are likely to find another Randy Shepard now or anytime soon."

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and likely GOP gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., also issued statements thanking Shepard for his service.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in an interview that Shepard will be remembered not just for making the Supreme Court more efficient, but for establishing the judicial branch as a presence equal to the executive and legislative branches in Indiana state government,

When Shepard became chief justice, the Supreme Court was inefficient, clogged with criminal cases and wasn't highly regarded, said Zoeller, who attended Shepard's investiture 25 years ago.

"I remember talking with Randy then and hearing him say that, when he left, he wanted people to say that Indiana was now a leader among the Supreme Courts," Zoeller said. "I thought at the time, 'that'll be the day' because things were not good then.

"Now the Indiana Supreme Court really is a leader ... and he did that."

Zoeller said he was "somewhat surprised" by Shepard's retirement and added that he had mixed feelings about it.

"You hate to see the good ones go before their 75 years of service are up," he said with a laugh.

In an interview in his chambers, Shepard said that nothing special prompted him to decide to retire.

"Calendars sometimes drive these decisions," he said, noting that he was coming to the end of one of his five-year terms as chief justice.

The anniversary prompted him, he said, to ask himself and his family, "Is it time to try something else?"

He said he didn't know what he would be doing next, other than helping with the process of selecting the next Supreme Court justice.He still will chair the judicial nominating commission and said that the commission likely will provide the governor with three names for consideration by late February.

Beyond that, he said he really didn't have plans.He wanted to do something, he said, because "baby boomers don't retire."

But all the chief justice really knew is what he wouldn't be doing.

"I don't plan on shuffleboard or anything like that," Shepard said.

Shepard, a seventh-generation Hoosier, was the youngest chief justice in the U.S. when he was appointed at age 40. He is the state's longest-serving chief justice.

He first became a judge in 1980 for the Vanderburgh Superior Court in his hometown of Evansville, Ind. According to the Indiana University Law School, Shepard authored more than 890 majority opinions and more than 65 law review articles in 30 different journals over the course of his career.

John Krull is executive editor of The Statehouse File, director of the Pulliam School of Journalism and the host of "No Limits," 90.1 FM WFYI, Indianapolis.

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