Colleagues call retiring Judge Jean Shepherd’s expertise with family law ‘irreplaceable’
The bulletin board in Judge Jean Shepherd’s office says it all.
Other than photos of her own children and grandchildren, a good chunk of the board includes memories of various adoption ceremonies that Shepherd, Douglas County’s longtime family court judge, has presided over.
“When I taught high school (before becoming a lawyer), it became real clear to me I wanted to continue to be involved with kids,” said Shepherd, who was appointed as a Douglas County judge in 1984. “What I’m doing now is what I always would have wanted to do, but I didn’t know the name for it.”
The first female judge in the county’s history will give up her gavel in January as she retires, and her friends and colleagues say Shepherd has a left a vast legal legacy across the state, especially for her work with families and children.
“She’s a touchstone for a lot of people in the community who work in child welfare and juvenile justice,” said Heather Krase-Minnick, director of the Citizen Review Board of Douglas County, a court-based program Shepherd started in 1986.
Shepherd has presided over the county’s family court since it was established in 1994, and her fellow judges say her longevity in that area is a testament to her commitment to families and children.
“The most important thing is that Judge Shepherd is really one of the experts, if not the expert in Kansas, in the juvenile law area, especially for children in need of care,” said Robert Fairchild, currently the county’s chief judge. “She’s going to be irreplaceable.”
After graduating in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education from Kansas University, Shepherd returned to Wyandotte County, where she grew up, and taught English at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kan.
Some of her students were involved in juvenile court, sparking her interest in that area. She returned to KU and graduated from law school in 1977. During her last year she supervised KU’s juvenile law clinic and was an intern in the Douglas County district attorney’s office.
Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone, who was district attorney at the time, hired her in 1977 as an assistant district attorney.
When she was a prosecutor, Shepherd said some male law enforcement officers did not want to talk to “the woman in the office.”
“It was 1977; things were changing,” she said.
Malone said he hired her because he saw she was a good lawyer. Her skills were on display in court, and it often frustrated the male attorneys because they didn’t like to lose to a woman.
“She was very, very effective,” Malone said. ” She was always well organized and well prepared.”
Shepherd left the district attorney’s office in 1981 to enter private practice at Barber, Emerson, Springer and Zinn before she became a judge in 1984.
The legal profession is much different now, she said, with many more female attorneys and judges. A majority — four of the six — judges in the Douglas County district are women.
“When I started out, my goal was probably as much of anything not to make some horrendous mistake that would prevent other women from being appointed here,” Shepherd said. “And we now have three other woman judges.”
Work with families
When Malone was the county’s chief judge he established the local court rule in 1994 for the family court. It was a move to have one judge deal with those types of cases. And Shepherd never wavered, even in an area where judges often burn out.
“There aren’t many people out there who want a full assignment of family law cases,” Malone said. “You can never replace the experience that she has.”
A Douglas County judicial nominating commission on Nov. 8 will interview 13 Lawrence attorneys who have applied to replace Shepherd. The commission will send names of two or three nominees to Gov. Mark Parkinson, who will select one.
Fairchild said several factors, including the new judge’s experience, will determine whether the county sticks with one judge handling family court cases.
Shepherd believes now is a good time to step down.
“There are other things I want to do,” she said. “I’m never going to be younger or healthier, so I think it’s time to do them.”
Her husband, John Bork, died in 2006. He was a well-known prosecutor across the state, especially as an assistant attorney general.
“Probably since my husband died, the realization that life is short is clearer than it used to be,” she said.
She will take the next year to travel and spend time with her five grandchildren. Her colleagues say she deserves it.
Aside from her work from the bench, she’s helped start many organizations and programs. In 1986, Shepherd founded the Citizen Review Board, where panels of volunteers meet to review cases of abused or neglected children or juvenile offenders and respond to the judge in writing.
In 1991 she helped found Douglas County CASA Inc., which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, where trained volunteers stay with children who must appear in court and advocate for them.
Now the Kansas Supreme Court mandates judicial districts to have organizations that train volunteers in these areas.
Shepherd has been active in the challenge award, starting a post-secondary school scholarship for students at each high school who were in foster care at some point. She even helped start the seventh-grade football program, where Lawrence police officers coach teams.
Diana Frederick, executive director of CASA here, said the organization has plans to rename a room in the office for Shepherd.
“She makes some very hard decisions, and she touches lives in a lot of important ways,” Frederick said.
As Shepherd thinks about the end of her term, memories of many children float to the surface: Years ago, two girls whose parents’ rights had to be terminated. Shepherd presided at their adoptions, and much later married both of the girls.
That’s a happy memory. But in family court, each day can be difficult. For example, she worries the state budget cuts are hurting the system that deals with child abuse and neglect cases.
“It’s affecting investigations, and it’s affecting services,” she said.
The complexity of these issues is evident, and Douglas County’s longtime family court judge does have advice for her replacement.
“Each decision we make in court is potentially life changing in some way for whom we’re making it,” she said. “I just think it’s important to keep that in mind — every time we walk in the courtroom.”