Remembering Ross Shephard
I did not know Ross Shepard well. I met him only toward the end of his career as a public defender Chief and then as defender division staffer at NLADA. The October 30, 2013 obituary in The Register Guard filled in many of the gaps. It told me that he was 67 when he passed away, that he died suddenly, that he was divorced and planned to remarry, that he played rugby, and that he was “really going to retire”. I learned that he co-founded the Public Defender Services of Lane County and then helped to establish the statewide Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. I learned that in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice recognized the office that he founded as a national model. I learned that as a Chief Defender Ross worked hard to turn the public defender job into a “career that lawyers aimed for,” partly by fighting for adequate salaries “that reflect the value of the work.” I learned that in the early 2000s when budget cuts were threatened, his lawyers agreed to work without pay for several months. That's what the obit taught me. And the arc of that life was significant: a committed public defender, a creator of organizations, a leader who stood by his troops.
But I also experienced Ross Shepard beyond that obit. What I did know of him is that his passing creates a hole in our community. He was one of that generation post-Gideon that dedicated his life to not only defending the poor accused, but also to creating systems that would exist long after he had left the scene, systems dedicated to zealous and excellent representation. Many of that generation have already retired or are soon to do so. We should honor them, as they breathed life into a case, and then when the society didn't respond, they called foul and demanded more.
Ross Shepard demanded more. He was perhaps at his best when he saw that public defender organizations around the country were failing to keep caseloads under control. He saw that problem for the pernicious and insidious energy-sapping issue that it is—one that threatens many if not most public defender organizations in American. He would not let that issue go away. He called upon the ABA to look at the issue from the perspective of public defenders. And from his work came ABA Ethics Opinion 06-441, which for the first time said that public defenders with excessive caseloads were being unethical and that they had an obligation to do something about that. The opinion also went on, importantly to state that public defender leaders shared the same ethical obligations and that they too could be found unethical if they tolerated unethical caseloads among their staff attorneys. Ross played a significant role in that. Thanks, Ross. Rest in Peace, Friend.