20 Questions with Justice Janie L. Shores
1. The book Women of True Grit, in which you are featured, is set to be released within the next few weeks. How does it feel to be included as a pioneer in your field along with the first women to do such things as own an airline, take a company public on Wall Street, and produce the first coast to coast television show?
Am I allowed to say I would rather have been the first to take a company public? I think I was fascinated by the world of Wall Street before I fell for the law. I can’t explain why. There were no investment bankers in my family or acquaintances, and it began before I saw The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. I know overhearing my parents and other adults talk and worry about banks failing, about the crash of the stock market having started the Great Depression and the failure of President Hoover to do anything to help people who were out of work. All of this had an impact on me. Without understanding what they were, I absorbed a distrust of mortgages and banks and developed a desire to understand that world better. But I digress. I am proud to be in their company and marvel that I am.
2. Women today, indeed women lawyers, have undoubtedly benefitted from your taking on historically accepted norms and challenging the status quo. Who are the women that have been an inspiration to you, both within and outside the legal profession, and what about them served to inspire you?
I was inspired and required to work hard by observing my mother, grandmothers, aunts, and all of the mothers of my friends because all of them worked hard. In fact, all of the women I knew worked hard. Even if they didn’t have a job that paid a salary, they worked hard to feed and clothe their children, keep the house running, raise a garden, feed and milk cows, wash and iron sheets, towels, clothes, and be sure there were three meals on the table every day. My pre-school memories are a blur of work. Everybody worked. My sister and I didn’t help “chop” cotton, but we helped pick it. We also helped pick strawberries. My recollection is that for us the work did not get any easier after my father joined the Navy, but it changed some. We got jobs picking up potatoes. We got paid by the basket. Not too long after we started, I got promoted to “counter.” My job was to keep up with the number of baskets each picker was to be paid for. The next year, my mother got a job in a restaurant connected to a “tourist court.” I don’t think the word “motel” had been coined then. My sister and I worked in the restaurant too; sometimes when we were really busy I was the cashier. Later my mother worked at the telephone company and we worked as waitresses in the summer. After school we walked to the telephone office and “spotted” airplanes for the war effort. We were given little booklets with sketches of airplanes and we were to identify all that we saw.
The teacher who most impressed me was Mrs. Hiles. She taught English literature. I didn’t know any lawyers, male or female.
3. When did you first contemplate a career as a lawyer? What drew you to the profession?
I graduated from high school on a Friday in April, 1950, before my birthday, which is April 30. The next day, I rode to Mobile (from our house in Loxley) on a Greyhound bus. At the bus station I looked in the phonebook and found an employment office within walking distance and it was open on Saturday. I went, filled out the application and the woman there (I regret that I can’t remember her name, but she was young and very attractive) told me that a lawyer was looking for a secretary. She told me that he was a sole practitioner and that he represented “the Bishop” and that the job required shorthand and typing and that I could see him that afternoon. I don’t remember much about the interview but I learned that the Bishop was the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Mobile and my new employer represented the Diocese. I got the job. My salary was to be $120 per month and I was expected to work 5 days a week and every other Saturday. The office was closed to clients on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday afternoons. Those afternoons were reserved for “dictation”. Taking dictation and transcribing it without a flaw was expected. It consisted of legal pleadings, briefs, deeds, contracts, etc. and all correspondence.
It was during one of these marathon dictations sessions that Mr. Kilborn (Vincent F. Kilborn, Jr.) remarked that he believed that I had a feel for the law and should go to law school. It was the first time anybody had ever suggested that an education beyond high school might be available to me.
I set about learning the prerequisites for law school and found that an undergraduate degree from an accredited college was necessary. I immediately enrolled in as many classes as was allowed in what were then called “university centers.” These were courses offered by various colleges and universities in towns across Alabama. My aim was to earn as many hours as possible before being required to be physically on campus. My plan was to figure out how to do that later. I took classes at Judson College, an all girls school in Marion, Alabama, before finally reaching the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, where I finally had enough undergraduate credits to get into law school. I entered in the second semester in January, 1959.
4. What were your law class demographics, male to female? Did that disparate proportion make you even stronger and more determined?
There were a total of five women in the entire law school, counting me. I didn’t think much about the disparity. I thought all of us were in the same competition and that mastery of the subject matter would overcome any disadvantage being a woman might present.
5. Was a natural camaraderie among your female classmates developed early on? Are you still in contact with any of them?
There was a natural camaraderie among the women students, and lasting friendships developed among some. I became very close to one and remained so until her recent death. Most of us kept up with each other after law school.
6. What was the nature of your law practice, and among male clients, what were the attitudes you had to dispell?
I graduated either first or second in my law school class. My competition was Charles McPherson Augustin (Max) Rogers, III. We became close friends and remained so after law school. He joined his father’s law firm in Mobile upon graduation. Thanks again to Vincent Kilborn I went to the Supreme Court of Alabama as law clerk to Justice Robert T. Simpson. Then, as now, clerkships are usually for a year, maybe two. I found that jobs for a woman with a law firm remained as scarce after a clerkship as they were upon graduation. No law firm was interested in a woman associate. The usual response was that while the firm had no objection, their clients would not accept a woman lawyer.
Previously, while I was trying to get an undergraduate degree to get into law school, I met and married a young man from Selma, Alabama, the son of a prominent family in Selma. I took courses at the University of Alabama branch there and drove from Selma to Marion, Alabama, for classes at Judson College. When I entered law school I lived on campus for the first time. I went back and forth to Selma on weekends. When my clerkship on the Supreme Court ended I opened an office in Selma. The lawyers in Selma were welcoming and said I would be allowed to become a member of the Dallas County Bar association once the by-laws were amended to allow women. At that time membership was limited to “white male” lawyers. The amendment simply eliminated “male.” There were no black lawyers in Selma at the time.
My practice was limited. I had some domestic relations cases, lots of collection cases, a fairly significant real estate practice, and one significant probate matter which came by a referral from one of the significant Jewish merchants in town. The next newest lawyer and I were appointed to defend a young black man indicted for capital murder. That lawyer was Cecil Jackson who had been George Wallace’s legal advisor
7. According to The American Bench: Judges of the Nation – 2009 Edition, 29 percent of the total state supreme court judges or their equivalent are now female. When you first began your practice, did you foresee in your lifetime that type of shift in influence by women within the profession, and particularly in our judicial system?
I could not have foreseen how quickly the change would come. I graduated from law school in 1959. Looking back, it was inevitable that women’s lives would change too. Life in America changed. My marriage to the nice young man in Selma ended in 1961 when I refused to allow him and his father include me when they helped organize and joined the White Citizen’s Council. I was told that I was no longer considered a member of the family when I refused to support the effort. I left Selma and moved to Birmingham. I did not find a job in a law firm, but thanks to support from the dean of the law school, I did get a corporate job when I was hired as counsel to the Investment Division of Liberty National Life Insurance Company.
The sixties marked the beginning of profound change. All schools were segregated in the Deep South. Black people were not allowed to vote, although the law did not specifically deny them the vote. The registration process was routinely used to prevent them from voting. I remember registering to vote when I reached voting age and was required to read and explain part of the Constitution. I passed the test, but there was no appeal from the decision of the person registering new voters if the decision had been otherwise. Black people were not allowed to attend traditionally white state colleges and universities. They were required to sit in the back of city buses, and were not allowed eat at lunch counters (not to mention conventional restaurants).
Restrictions on women were for the most part more subtle, but by law women were not allowed to sit on juries and by custom were barred from other activities.
The Sixties would change all of that. I was a senior in law school in 1958 which was a gubernatorial election year. All of us had a candidate in the race, and as was to be expected, race was the determining issue, Brown v. Board of Education having been decided in 1954(?). Race would remain the central issue in every political contest in Alabama for what appears to be forever. George Wallace, a candidate running for the first time for Governor, was not the segregation forever candidate that time. He was then considered a moderate on the race issue, as was Jimmy Faulkner, a newspaper publisher, and George Hawkins, considered the most liberal of the field, probably because he had the support of the labor unions. John Patterson, whose father had been killed in Phenix City while running for Attorney General on an anti-crime theme, was the main segregation candidate. John Patterson beat George Wallace in a runoff, who proclaimed to his supporters that he would never be “out-segged” again. And he never was.
John F. Kennedy was elected 1960, the first Roman Catholic ever to be elected. (I led the only Kennedy campaign in Selma.) The Women’s Movement evolved in that decade as did the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the public response to all of them. Life would never be the same for Black people nor women and although the pace of change was not equal, the parallels abound.
8. Do you think there are cases reviewed on appeal that just by virtue of their subject matter are more difficult for a female jurist to consider?
I don’t think there is a difference in approach to a legal question which is determined by sex alone. There were emergency writs about young women seeking abortions which came to the Court during my time. I sensed but cannot prove that my reaction to the issue was different from that of my brothers. There is probably no scientific proof of this, but it seemed to me that my brothers didn’t agonize over death penalty cases as much as I did.
9. In 1974, you became the first elected female appellate judge in the United States. In Alabama at the time, George Wallace was a substantial political force. What challenges did you face in your campaign for the Supreme Court of Alabama?
My race in 1974 was very much influenced by race. George Wallace (and not only George Wallace) had made race a factor in every race. I first ran for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court in 1972. As the last day to qualify approached, no one had qualified to run against me. However, before the day was over, I had four opponents. I knew only one of them; a respected trial lawyer from Birmingham named Eric Embry. Another was George Goldthwaite, whose grandfather had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; J. O. Fant, from Tuscaloosa, and James H. Faulkner, who ran as “Jimmy” Faulkner, who had lost a race for governor in the 1958 race and who had since become a George Wallace activist, and was still a prominent newspaper publisher with statewide name recognition.
Faulkner and I wound up in a runoff and I lost narrowly to the “wrong” Jimmy Faulkner. I had supported the “real” Jimmy Faulkner in the l958 governor’s race because he was then considered a moderate and was from my home county. Many people still thought they had voted for him for the Court until he died a year or so ago.
Race played a role in my race for other reasons as well. The Faulkner who was my opponent was a member of the so-called Sovereignty Commission, which like the White Citizens Council had been formed to resist integration of the schools. His supporters spread the rumor that I was the wife of Arthur Shores, a prominent Black Birmingham lawyer whose home had been bombed more than once by anti-integration forces. The main challenge I faced was how to convince the voters that Faulkner was not the Faulkner they thought he was, and that I was not the Shores he said I was. I lost, and ran again in 1974 and was elected.
10. From a humanitarian or "bleeding heart" standpoint, did you ever have a particularly difficult case you had to consider while sitting on the Court? In what manner do such cases affect the justices deciding the outcome?
As I said earlier, the abortion cases were especially difficult for me and for some of the other judges. Some of us, me in particular, didn’t think we had any business making a decision like that, but the law allowed a young girl to petition a court of jurisdiction for permission to end a pregnancy under some circumstances, e.g. when there was no parental consent.
11. Do you still keep up with decisions handed down by the appellate courts or are you content at this point in life looking out at the sunsets over the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico?
I don’t study the decisions as closely as I used to, and now that the Supreme Court of Alabama is dominated by Republicans with an obvious suspicion of jury verdicts, it is often painful to read the decisions; not only because they often disregard the jury’s decision (particularly on damages in civil cases) but also fail to justify having done so. This is true not just in Alabama, but across the nation. The Chamber of Commerce and business interests have won by screaming “tort reform.” There are people in Alabama who favor tort reform without knowing what a tort is. I am fearful that juries in civil cases may eventually be eliminated entirely in this country.
12. On a lighter note, do you read lawyer novels, by authors like John Grisham or Steve Martini, or after an intensive legal career spanning several decades do you tend to find outlets or entertainment in other areas?
I enjoy Grisham, but recently I find nonfiction more compelling than fiction. In the last few weeks I have read Too Big to Fail and Game Change and have found fact more compelling than fiction.
13. Our most recent survey question to LCA Fellows pertained to U.S. Supreme Court justice nominees' scrutiny before the Senate during their respective confirmation processes. Do you think the process has become too political, should allow for even more scrutiny, or is about right as it is currently conducted?
I think it would be helpful to know more about a nominee’s commitment to the Constitution and the history of this country and how carefully the founding fathers worked to create the framework for our government. The process has become more political with each new nominee. I think we would all be better served to learn more about the nominee’s understanding of the role of the Court and when it should stay out of the debate. I taught my law students that the Supreme Court of the United States refused to decide purely political cases and why that position was necessary to preserve the integrity of the system…then came Bush v. Gore.
14. You are the Litigation Counsel of America's first female Honorary Fellow, thereby blazing new trails once again. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to our mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
Life is no longer simple, if it ever was. But as our society becomes more complex, made up of people from increasingly different cultures, the problems will become more difficult. New ways to take advantage of people are increasingly subtle. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest among us broadens each year. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain faith in the government to achieve a fair balance. I believe that once the people lose faith in our system of government and come to doubt the integrity of the judiciary, we are doomed. We must have diversity at every level throughout the justice system in order to maintain the public trust upon which our future depends.
15. Discovery in civil cases has become an incredibly costly and sometimes prohibitive aspect of our judicial system. Do you think the American litigation processes, state and federal, would be better served if discovery was more limited?
I grew up with and maintain a profound appreciation of the niceties of common law pleading. A mastery of that subject promotes an understanding of many other areas of law, and saves countless hours of time which is now billed to clients. I am dismayed that trials have become the exception rather than the rule, and that discovery has become a weapon instead of an aid to trial. I would severely limit discovery.
16. Once again on the lighter side, who is your favorite jurist in American history, and why?
I have always admired Judge Learned Hand. I like the clarity of his mind and the clarity of his opinions. I also like fellow Alabamian Hugo Black. He too could say what he meant and be understood.
17. Do you have any regrets with respect to your career as a lawyer and appellate jurist?
Yes, I regret that I got no farther than Clinton’s short list when he appointed Ruth Bader Ginsberg to “my” seat.
18. In looking back on your career, what would you say was the moment of which you were most proud, and/or what was your most significant contribution?
In retrospect I think the fact that I got as far as I did from the background I came from could happen only in America. My father and mother were only 18 years old when I was born. Neither had an education beyond grade school. But they both had good minds and they worked hard all of their lives and instilled in their children a work ethic that has served us well. College was never mentioned during my childhood. I am sure it was never mentioned in theirs either. I assumed, to the extent that I thought about it at all, that college was not in my future. My childhood friends felt the same way. So until Vince Kilborn said that he thought I had a gift for studying law, it never occurred to me that it might be possible. But once I realized it was possible I never stopped trying. I had a real advantage when I finally got to law school. I did know how to take dictation and I took down every word the professors uttered, typed them up and studied them for the exams. I think I made good grades because I often answered the questions using the professor’s own words. I also shared my “summaries,” as we called them. I know that helped me win election to the Court. To this day lawyers often tell me they would not gave gotten through a particular class but for my notes, and they repaid me by supporting me.
19. How would you like to be remembered?
I hope I am remembered as being an honest lawyer, a good professor, a fair judge, and a loyal friend.
20. What is your motto?
Never give up.