by Richard Prior
Bill Sheppard’s philosophy is as simple as it gets.
“Do the right thing.”
After following his moral compass through a law career stretching back to 1968, Sheppard has been chosen the attorney recipient of The Florida Bar Foundation’s 2004 Medal of Honor.
“I was pretty blown away by it,” said Sheppard in the Washington Street office he’s occupied for the past 34 years. “Still am.”
Sheppard also follows some backup slogans that sort of round out the whole. “Don’t wait on tomorrow” certainly applies. And, “If you find something you’re comfortable with, stick with it.” He’s been in the same office behind the jail and the Police Memorial Building since before those buildings were there. Not even the table in his meeting room has changed in 34 years.
“Every now and then, a client will say, ‘God, you really have a good location,’ ” he said. “I say, ‘Yeah, I came here, and everything followed.’ ”
His law partner, Elizabeth “Betsy” White, came to work at the firm 24 years ago. They have now been married for 18 years.
Living life in the moment has always come naturally for Sheppard. It became even more important six years ago when he nearly died of a heart attack. And got even more intense with his wife’s own grim diagnosis a year and a half ago.
“I got defibrillated back to life,” he said. “Two days later, I had my youngest child. And Betsy survived breast cancer.
“I cherish every second. We’re into the moment. And the irony of it all is we already were in the moment.
“This reassures that you’ve got to do the right thing now because you’ve got no time later.”
Sheppard, whose work has been in criminal defense and civil rights cases, will receive the Medal of Honor June 24 at the foundation’s annual dinner in Boca Raton during The Florida Bar Association’s annual meeting.
“I think what this is all about is providing greater access to the law,” he said. “I practice law to have fun and make a difference. Whatever comes with it, comes with it.
“I hate to use the word ‘blessed,’ but, if it works ... I’ve been blessed that I love what I do. And I like to make a difference. It turns me on, makes me feel like I ain’t wasting my life chasing a dollar or some other idol.”
Sheppard and White also have a partner, D. Gray Thomas, who has been with the firm for nearly a dozen years. Matt Kachergus has been with them for three years.
The Medal of Honor was established in 1977. Two awards are presented annually, one to an attorney and the other to a nonlawyer, who may be “an attorney who is not actively engaged in the practice of law.”
The nonlawyer would be a person who has made “an outstanding contribution to the improvement of the administration of justice through research, writing or other deeds of such character and quality that ... warrant the highest award that can be bestowed by the Foundation.”
Forty-five awards have been made. Past recipients include former governors Leroy Collins and Reubin Askew, past American Bar Association President Chesterfield Smith and Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte.
Past Jacksonville recipients have included Raymond Ehrlich, James Rinaman Jr. and Mark Hulsey.
Lois Thacker Graessle of Jacksonville won last year’s award in the non-lawyer category “for a lifetime of dedicated and selfless volunteer service in the pursuit of justice.”
Sheppard caught his first civil rights case in 1969, when a federal district judge appointed him to defend some Black Muslims.
“Check out that irony,” he said. “All they wanted was access to the Koran, a pork-free meal and access to a Muslim minister. Our courts gave it to them.
“Now, if you’re a free Muslim, you’re going to get your head cracked.”
As with so many other parts of his life, Sheppard came to civil rights naturally.
“I was raised by people who believed in doing the right thing,” he said. “Everybody gets it too complicated, but it’s all pretty simple.
“It all boils down to doing the right thing. Which would mean don’t do a lot of things — don’t discriminate against people on account of their race or sex or any other reason.
“My Dad had a saying: ‘I came into this Earth with nothing; I’m going to leave with nothing.’ Man, he is right. All you leave with is a few fond memories.”
Too many young attorneys these days are planning to leave fatter bank accounts behind, Sheppard complained. Helping others is on the far, far back burner.
“We’re putting out a generation of lawyers who are graduating from law school $100,000 in debt because of student loans,” he said. “They’re getting out of law school leading the lifestyle of a lawyer before they even pick up a book to be a lawyer.
“Now what are they going to do? The right thing? Or the economically right thing?
“Well, they ain’t doing the right thing. They’re doing for themselves. They’re not reaching out. And that’s not going to be good for them in the long haul or the profession or the community.”
Sheppard received his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and his law degree from the University of Florida. He was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army artillery.
“I went with the first nuclear outfit to Korea that America ever sent there,” said Sheppard. “Me and 500 other guys. I spent a good bit of time sitting on the button of a nuclear weapon.”
He has argued three cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. One of them, for client Marc Gilbert Doggett, was argued in October 1992 and reargued in February. The decision in Doggett’s favor established precedent for speedy trials in criminal cases.
“It was obviously a high because it is the High Court,” Sheppard said. “And you’re playing for real.
“But once you get going, it ain’t any different from the Justice of the Peace courts that I started to practice law in during the late ’60s. Once you get your argument going. ...”
A major part of Sheppard’s work has been with overcrowding and “inhumane” conditions in U.S. prisons. That experience colors his reaction to the scandals involving guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“I see what’s going on in the prison there, and it’s awful,” he said. “But it’s no different from what’s going on here. If we’re so shocked with what’s going on in the prisons of Iraq, we (should) open the doors to the prisons of America. People would faint.”
The attorney who has spent his life helping provide equal justice held out a letter of congratulations from a long-time friend. As rewarding as actually receiving the Medal of Honor will be, this letter may be the highlight.
It was written by a man, now a judge, who clearly remembers Sheppard from the early days. He recalled how Sheppard could be depended upon to swim against racist tides and tilt against injustice.
He congratulated him on his award and hinted that such recognition doesn’t always come to confirmed mavericks.
And, Sheppard read from the letter, the words appropriate to a person nearing the end of a career or a life ought to be, “May the life I have lived speak for me.”
“Now I ask you,” said Sheppard, clearly moved. “Ain’t that a damn fine letter?”