Commentary and Opinion

MORRIS: Shepard's legacy is open government

February 25, 2012

MorrisI know a lot has been written recently about retiring Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard. The press coverage has been a glowing review of his service to Indiana residents. In fact, over the years, I’ve never heard a disparaging word about Randall Shepard. And I say—deservedly so. It has been my honor to know him.

So, I was pleased when the Hoosier State Press Association recently honored Shepard with a Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award for his support of open government. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient.

With many state legislators observing, Judy O’Bannon, the late governor’s wife, presented the award symbolizing transparency in government to Shepard during a luncheon at the HSPA Annual Meetings and Government Conference at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown on Feb. 16.

Randall Shepard accepts HSPA awardChief Justice Randall Shepard, center, receives the Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award from Judy Jon O’Bannon, owners of The Corydon Democrat newspaper. (Photo courtesy HSPA)

Shepard’s efforts to help Hoosiers understand how the court system works were lauded by O’Bannon, an owner of The Corydon Democrat newspaper, which nominated the jurist for the honor. The O’Bannon Sunshine Award, first awarded in 2005, honors an individual, group or organization demonstrating outstanding effort to protect and enhance open government in Indiana.

“Some people think the press only reports the bad news—the one bad apple in a barrel of good public officials and employees,” said HSPA executive director and general counsel Stephen Key. “The Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award honors that golden apple—those public servants or citizens who understand that our government should be transparent to the people it serves.”

The Corydon Democrat’s nomination, submitted by Publisher Jon O’Bannon, included the following testimonial:

“Chief Justice Randy Shepard has articulated the belief that newspapers and the judiciary have a symbiotic relationship. The judiciary needs the coverage of its operations and decisions to help strengthen its role as one of the three equal branches of government, each serving as a counterweight to the other two branches. The judiciary is dependent upon the opinion of the courts by the people to give it the strength to fulfill its role, and the press is a key factor in giving the public information to form its opinion of the court system. Meanwhile, the press is reliant upon the judiciary to protect its newsgathering ability through First Amendment-related decisions. If the court doesn’t support the freedom of press, newspapers’ ability to serve as a government watchdog could be severely curtailed.

“With that view, the chief justice has taken steps to make the workings of the judiciary more transparent. Under his watch:

“• Media cameras are allowed in the appellate courts, and arguments are webcast across the Internet.

“• The Supreme Court has approved one pilot project allowing cameras in trial courtrooms and is considering a new project (approved since this nomination).

“• The Supreme Court updated its Administrative Rule 9 to take into account issues raised by a digital environment.

“• The Supreme Court issued an order reducing the incidence of trial court judges agreeing to draw a veil of secrecy around specific cases.”

Before closing, I want to take the opportunity to tout some of the chief justice’s work on a topic near and dear to me—civic engagement. Shepard has been very active in this area. The Indiana Supreme Court runs Courts in the Classroom to help educators, students, historians and interested citizens learn more about the history and operation of Indiana’s judicial branch.

Also, Shepard has been involved with the Indiana Civic Health Index project, which examines behaviors and attitudes of Hoosiers regarding civic life and explores resources and impediments that affect how citizens of Indiana participate in civic life. As an example, the information obtained in this report can help us design and implement strategies to improve voter turnout.

Shepard’s impending retirement is certainly a great loss to the court and comes on the heels of Justice Ted Boehm’s retirement in late 2010. The combined knowledge, experience and talent of these two remarkable men cannot be overstated. One bit of good news is that Boehm vowed not to disappear in retirement, and that has been the case. We can only hope and believe the same will be true of Chief Justice Randall Shepard.

Best of luck, chief justice, and congratulations on receiving the Frank O’Bannon Sunshine Award. Thanks for your outstanding service, and thank you for your efforts in protecting and enhancing open government in Indiana.•

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Morris is publisher of IBJ. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to gmorris@ibj.com.

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