Photo of Jacksonville lawyer Bill Sheppard standing in front of a jail cell.
Photo of Jacksonville lawyer Bill Sheppard standing in front of a jail cell.
Bill Sheppard [Courtesy of Betsy White]

Attorney Bill Sheppard, a civil rights legend who wielded the U.S. Constitution in his nearly six-decade fight to transform Jacksonville and Florida, died Saturday. He was 80.

Sheppard was at the forefront of many fights throughout Jacksonville’s history.

Sheppard’s was the first integrated law firm in Florida, with law partner Henry Lee Adams Jr. later becoming the first Black judge on the 4th Judicial Circuit and the first Black federal judge in the Middle District of Florida.

Sheppard’s lawsuits legalized same-sex marriage in Florida, led to a federal takeover of state prisons, sparked the construction of a less crowded county jail and forced the city into a consent decree over its discrimination against Black firefighters.

“He wasn’t a ‘lawyer.’ He was a man who was willing to give everything he had to the people and causes he loved,” wrote Betsy White, his wife and longtime law partner, on Facebook. “He never gave a damn about material things or a person’s social status. Those false trappings were of no value to him. Instead, the Constitution was his Bible, and the search for justice was his life’s mission.”

Plenty of attorneys have backed major civil-rights fights at certain points in their careers, but Sheppard’s decades-long focus on civil-rights cases was unique.

“If Bill was outraged, he was outraged for real,” White said Sunday. “He wasn’t outraged for the TV.

“Judges did not scare him. Prisons did not scare him. Injustice infuriated him.”

Senior Circuit Judge Hugh Carithers, a former law partner of Sheppard’s, said Sheppard faced serious consequences for his principled stands. At one point while representing inmates suing over the Duval County jail’s inhumane conditions, they found their law office riddled with bullet holes.

“I don’t think people appreciate just how hard it was, how courageous it was for him to take the stands he was taking,” Carithers said. “… When he started that practice, it wasn’t an exaggeration to say he was the conscience of Jacksonville, Fla.”

His lawsuit against the county jail’s conditions led a judge to write that “the overall environment of the inmate housing areas of the Duval County Jail gave one the psychological feeling of being trapped in a dungeon.”

Sheppard entered law school after serving as an Army officer in the Korean War. He came to Jacksonville and began his career at a silk-stocking firm focused on real estate and banking.

His civil-rights career began when he was assigned a pro bono case representing a Black Muslim who had been denied a Koran and pork-free meals, according to law partner Matt Kachergus, a protégé of Sheppard’s.

The protests against the war in Vietnam and the fight for racial civil rights “woke him up and put him on the path,” Kachergus said.

While Sheppard scored significant victories in the name of civil rights, he also fought for what he believed was right, even when the law didn’t yet agree. “He was not afraid to lose,” White said.

He unsuccessfully sued to open up Jacksonville’s Republican primary for state attorney, which was closed to the 96 percent of Black voters who weren’t Republicans, even though only Republicans had filed for the election.

He also sued the county’s bail system, arguing it was unconstitutional to jail people just because they were too poor to afford bail. The lawsuit was dismissed.

“He was true to his clients and true to the law,” said senior U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger. Sheppard was willing to be the first to try a novel lawsuit if he believed it could right an injustice.

For the last decade, he continued practicing law even as he suffered ever-worsening back pain. Eventually, Kachergus and White had to take away his car keys, and they and others would drive him to work, carrying him up the stairs.

“He’d push through it like nothing I’d ever seen,” Kachergus said. “I’d be questioning, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ But he loved what he did as a lawyer and nothing would take away his life’s passion.”

He never shied away from sharing his opinions, in colorful language, on the injustices he believed held up much of society. He elevated his profanity to a poetry, said Larry Hannan, a former Florida Times-Union reporter who covered Sheppard’s cases.

Oftentimes after an interview with a reporter, many of his quotes were deemed unfit to print in a family newspaper. Sheppard used profanity, Hannan said, like Yo-Yo Ma used a cello.

“While the rest of us went back and forth between AA and AAA ball, he starred in the big leagues,” said Hank Coxe, a former Florida Bar president. “The profession will survive, but now we all have to worry about those vulnerable people in our world who are even more so without their greatest protector and champion.”