Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2014

Parting Thoughts

Remembering a Visionary
By John Potter

The concept of broadly applied public defense representation is fairly new, having gained a significant foothold in 1963 — only 50 years ago — with Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case that provided a right to representation in criminal matters. Within a decade following Gideon there arose a new type of lawyer, often referred to simply as a public defender. In Oregon, Ross Shepard was one of those who valiantly chose the public defense path.

My experience with Ross goes back 35 years, when I became the executive director of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (originally named the Oregon Public Defenders Association). Ross was one of the original founders, when the membership roster fit on one side of a piece of legal pad paper. Public Defender Services of Lane County, which he co-founded with Robert Larson in 1977, grew not only in size as measured by the number of attorneys and staff working there, but in stature. The office was recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as a model public defender organization during Ross’ tenure as public defender, which began in the early 1980s and lasted until 2004.

Dave Factor was the trial court administrator in Lane County for much of Shepard’s tenure. “What set Ross apart from others with similar passion was his ability to work with prosecutors and judges developing programs to improve the administration of criminal justice, yielding better outcomes for his clients and the community.”

While running the public defender office, Shepard also served as OCDLA president and worked as its legislative lobbyist, working on countless issues on behalf of the defense bar. He lectured at seminars and participated in all nature of committees surrounding issues of public defense. Few had his talent for bringing people together, finding common ground and arriving at solutions to complicated problems.

His efforts were key to the passage of SB 416 in 2011, under which pilot programs are being set up to help divert prison-bound offenders to alternative programs. Doug Harcleroad, who was the district attorney in Lane County for many years, and who worked with Shepard on the passage of SB 416, said, “Ross Shepard had a vision for making the criminal justice system better, but more than just a vision he had the ability to go out and make it better.”

Shepard’s approach to both issues and people was positive and contagious. He was dogged in his determination to give the under-represented a fair shake and to convince policy makers that it was in the best interest of society to treat people with compassion. There are some who are equally determined, but few as steady, dependable and respected by justice system players and politicians.

Over the course of time, Ross and I traveled from Eugene to Salem more than 400 times together. Most of those trips were consumed with creative brainstorming and political dissection. He had a good grasp of political realities and thought like a chess player, a few moves ahead. At the same time he always showed great concern for the individual, his clients. He was well suited to working with clients one-on-one and clearly enjoyed it. He was able to assist people in a way that many cannot.

Representing the criminal defense perspective to the legislature is a lonely job with few people to turn to for guidance and support. Sympathies do not run in your favor. Yet Shepard was able to advance the defense perspective in a way that legislators could hear and was successful in shifting many opinions. He developed and maintained credibility that was beyond reproach, which is a lobbyist’s most significant commodity. Seldom did victories come easy. Starting in 1993, it took eight years and four legislative sessions before one of his pet projects, the development of a public defense commission, was realized.

John Tyner, a former Board of Governors member and defense lawyer himself, recalled Shepard’s work this way: “Ross insisted that lawyers had a duty to care about fairness in the system even to the hated and despised. He did what he did out of conviction without need of anyone’s approval or permission. He worked for the general good as he saw it, gaining neither wealth nor popularity in the process. He showed me the personal reward that selfless effort in support of others brings.”

Oregon lawyers can be proud that our system of public defense services is looked upon as a model and that the professionalization of the defense bar has reached new heights. While the efforts to achieve such status are collective, chances are we wouldn’t be as proud had it not been for the work of Ross Shepard.

Ross Shepard died unexpectedly at his home on Oct. 22, 2013.


John Potter is executive director of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Associaiton.

© 2014 John Potter

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