Jacksonville civil rights attorney, Bill Sheppard, dead at 80

“He wasn’t a “lawyer.” He was a man who was willing to give everything he had to the people and causes he loved.”

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville civil rights attorney William ‘Bill’ Sheppard died at 80-years-old on Saturday afternoon after an extended illness. 

Sheppard left a mark on both Jacksonville and Florida as a whole during his time as a giant in the legal community. 

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

With law partner Henry Lee Adams Jr., Sheppard, Fletcher, Hand & Adams. became the first racially integrated law firm in Florida. Adams went on to become the first Black judge on the 4th Judicial Circuit and the first Black federal judge in the Middle District of Florida, as reported by The Tributary. 

Sheppard is also the reason same-sex marriage is legal in Florida. His lawsuit lead to the legalization of gay marriage in the state. Jim Brenner and Chuck Jones, two men who were married in Canada but who’s union was not recognized in Florida, came to Sheppard and White with hopes of challenging the state. The couple was hoping to file a federal lawsuit against the state of Florida to undo the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, as reported by the News Service of Florida.  The suit lead to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruling that Florida’s gay-marriage ban was unconstitutional. 

Sheppard litigated statewide jail and prison conditions on inmates behalf, leading to major improvements to care for those in custody, as recorded in his bio on his law firm’s website.  

The civil rights attorney’s lawsuits lead to the construction of a less crowded county jail as well as the federal takeover of state prisons, The Tributary reported. 

“The Constitution was his Bible and the search for justice was his life’s mission,” White wrote of her husband.

Before his time as a fierce attorney, Sheppard served as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Korea. He then graduated from the University of Florida College of Law. 

Sheppard received a long list of  honors during his time practicing law, including the Henry Lee Adams Jr. Diversity Trailblazer Award from the Jacksonville Bar Association Diversity Committee, which was named after his former law partner. He was also awarded the Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Award from Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, amongst many more. Sheppard was recognized by Best Lawyers in America five times over the years. 

Sheppard is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren. 

White wrote in her tribute to her husband, “Before Bill died, I promised him I would be strong and thoughtful. That is a promise I intend to keep. It is the least I can do for the man I love more than all the stars in the sky.”

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