From her humble beginnings picking potatoes in Loxley, to her principled stand against segregation-era politics in Selma, to her 24-year career as the first female justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, Janie Shores has never backed down from a challenge.
Shores was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court in 1974 and in 1993 was on President Bill Clinton’s short list to be his nominee for a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, one eventually filled by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
A new book published by Point Clear-based Intellect Publishing, “Just Call Me Janie: The Unlikely Story of the First Woman Elected to Alabama’s Supreme Court,” details her life and career.
Shores moved to Loxley as a child when her father moved the family to the area to be settled before he joined the Navy during World War II. Like most of her friends, Shores worked in the fields.
“All the men were off at war, so all the children were out there picking up potatoes,” Shores said. “After a while, I was selected to keep up with the baskets that others picked, so that was much easier than being the one who was out picking up all the potatoes.”
She attended Robertsdale High School and after her graduation in 1950, she boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Mobile to find a job. She found work dictating for solo practitioner Vince Kilborn Jr., a prominent Mobile-area attorney.
“In those days, if you were a girl and you graduated from a high school in Baldwin County, everyone knew at least two things about you: you knew how to type and you knew how to take shorthand,” Shores said. “I was so intrigued by the law that one day while [Kilborn] was dictating I made a remark that caused him to say I had a good mind for it. That got me thinking about going to law school.”
In order to pursue a career in law, Shores moved to Selma and enrolled in undergraduate courses at Judson College. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Samford University and enrolled at the University of Alabama Law School.
During her three years at Alabama, Shores said there were only five women to pass through the law program at the time, and she was the only woman in her graduating class. She also served as the editor of the law review.
After her 1959 law school graduation, and with Kilborn’s recommendation, Shores secured a job clerking for state Supreme Court Judge Robert Tennant Simpson. After that, she opened her own law practice in Selma.
“I married a man from Selma and we moved there to be near to his family,” Shores said. “His family was prominent and they were very nice to me.”
However, Shores said her father-in-law had a request she could not agree to.
“We had a parting of the ways when I refused to join the White Citizens Council,” Shores said. “There was absolutely no compromising about that on my end, so I left.”
After Selma, she moved to Birmingham, where she became the first female professor at Cumberland School of Law for nine years before running for Supreme Court, a race she won in 1974.
“I was able to win by virtue of the fact that I had good relations with the lawyers in the state who knew me, and I also had nine years’ [worth] of law students running around the state who knew me,” Shores said.
Shores said her greatest accomplishment on the state supreme court was that, in 24 years, she never wrote a proposed opinion that failed to receive a majority vote. She also said more often than not the court did not affirm cases on appeal without writing an opinion. If a party asked the court for oral argument, the court granted that request.
Today, Shores said, the court rarely grants oral argument requests and instead often relies on briefs filed by attorneys to decide cases. While it means more work for the court, Shores said If a party asked for oral argument, it was granted.
“I learned a lot about the law during oral arguments, as opposed to just reading the parties’ briefs,” Shores said. “I thought the outcome of the case was often affected by the oral arguments. As a member of the court, you write the opinion. That’s important because the opinions of the supreme court become precedent for future cases.”
Her career on the court ended after four terms, when she chose not to seek re-election in 1998. Shores continued to help the justices with their heavy caseload, working as a supernumerary justice until 2001, when Chief Justice Roy Moore dismissed her.
Just three years later, Shores would serve as one of seven members on a special supreme court, made up of retired but active former justices, who heard Moore’s disciplinary appeal related to his suspension from the court. At the time, Moore refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama judicial building against the order of a federal judge. Eventually, the panel voted 7-0 not to reinstate Moore.
Today, Shores is an advocate for revising the state constitution, which she said is “antiquated and almost useless.” She was a member of a 2003 blue-ribbon commission charged with writing a new constitution, which was eventually written but never approved by the state.
“We wrote a good one, and I guess it is sitting on a shelf somewhere in Montgomery,” Shores said. “It never went anywhere.”
Shores said she would encourage young women to pursue the study of law, which she said can open doors to virtually any career path they would choose.
“The study of law is logical,” Shores said. “It is not about memorizing facts and being able to reproduce them on the final examination. The study of law teaches you to analyze and to think. It is a mental discipline. A law degree opens a person up to many different careers other than law.”