For nearly half a century, William “Bill” J. Sheppard worked as a criminal defense, civil rights and appellate attorney in Florida, leaving a mark not only on Jacksonville but on the entire state of Florida.
On Saturday he died at 80 years old after an extended illness, leaving behind his wife and law partner, Elizabeth “Betsy” White, children and grandchildren.
In a Facebook post, White wrote that Mr. Sheppard “lived in excruciating pain for the last 10 years” but that he “used that pain to understand the pain of others, clients included, and it made him a better man.”
Mr. Sheppard argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for three separate cases and helped to progress rights for Floridians, including establishing that a delay between indictment and arrest can violate the constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Mr. Sheppard brought a lawsuit on behalf of two men, Jim Brenner and Chuck Jones, who were married in Canada but whose marriage was not recognized in Florida. The case led to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruling that Florida’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional.
Mr. Sheppard’s law firm also paved the way for racial integration in law in 1970s Florida when his firm, Sheppard, Fletcher, Hand & Adams, eventually adding now-Circuit Judge Hugh Carithers as a partner, was the first racially integrated law firm in Florida.
“It’s interesting to re-learn that this took place in Jacksonville because it’s not exactly the first place you would expect this to take place in Florida,” Jacksonville Bar Association President Mike Freed told The Times-Union. “It was a very courageous thing to do at that time, maybe even suicidal.”
D. Gray Thomas, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Sheppard’s firm for two decades before beginning his own practice, first met him working as a Times-Union journalist.
“He was just impressive as a fearless but thoroughly researched and prepared lawyer,” Thomas said. “He was the best in the practice of law and he didn’t give up and he wasn’t afraid to take on unpopular causes. Some of them I’m sure I covered and later worked on.”
Thomas remembers one of the first cases he worked on with him, where Mr. Sheppard represented people incarcerated in the state prison system who were fighting for better living conditions and health care. The lawsuit eventually led to the creation of the Correctional Medical Authority and the Control Release Authority, which caps the state’s prison population.
“One of the big keys was, in terms of an appeal of a situation for him, was protecting the disadvantaged, whether that had to do with racial minorities and gender issues, people who were just being steamrolled by the government,” Thomas said. “That was, I think, very much at the core of his principles, was to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.”
His daughter, Lillianna Sheppard, said she feels like the “luckiest person in the world” to have had a father like him.
“My dad was a very creative, poetic man and that was really illuminated in the way that he did his work, but also in the way he loved,” she said. “He was the kind of dad who would tell you he loved you, but he would also put on a song and show you. Like he would dance around the room and he would make you feel just like the most important person.”
Mr. Sheppard, born in Oregon, is survived by his wife and children Lang, Laura, James, Camille and Max in addition to Lillianna.
Funeral services take place Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. Johns Cathedral at 256 E. Church St. in Jacksonville.
Katherine Lewin is the enterprise reporter at the Times-Union covering criminal and social justice issues in Northeast Florida. Email her at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @KatherineMLewin. Contact her for her Signal number to share anonymous tips and documents. Support local journalism!