Posted Aug 12, 2006 06:54 pm CDT
Shestack remembers that his grandfather, a rabbi, instilled in him the importance of his favorite quote from the Bible, in the Book of Leviticus: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”
Many years later, says Shestack, his grandfather’s message was reinforced by his son Jonathan at the age of 7: “Asked what’s a lawyer do, he said, ‘He helps people.’ I never met a better definition.”
Those two credos sum up Shestack’s nearly 60-year career as a lawyer at the forefront of efforts to assert human rights and achieve equality in the United States and around the world.
On Aug. 7, Shestack will receive the ABA Medal, the association’s highest award, during a session of the House of Delegates at the annual meeting in Honolulu.
Shestack is “an ambassador for human rights throughout the world,” says ABA President Michael S. Greco of Boston. “From the time before he became a lawyer in 1949 through this day,” says Greco, “Jerry has committed his professional life and his substantial personal skills to the service of those who are vulnerable or unable to protect their interests. He has championed the causes of women, of ethnic minorities, of those with mental disabilities, of political prisoners, of the poor, of people unable to access legal counsel, of religious minorities, of those in need of legal champions in the United States or in the far corners of the world, and many others. He is a worthy recipient of the association’s highest honor.”
Past President Martha W. Barnett of Tallahassee, Fla., remembers Shestack’s early support for her and other women entering the association’s leadership ranks. “It began what became a 30-year friendship, and he’s been my mentor every step of the way in my career,” she says.
Shestack, also a past ABA president, applied his guiding principles early on.
“In law school I tried to get women into Harvard,” says Shestack. “The dean told me to mind my own business.” (Harvard began admitting women shortly after he graduated.) Later, while teaching at Louisiana State University, “I led the movement to get the first black student—Ernest Morial—into LSU law school. He ended up becoming the mayor of New Orleans.”
Shestack, a partner at Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen in Philadelphia who co-chairs the firm’s litigation department, has gained a worldwide reputation for his achievements in the human rights field.
“All of these rights we take for granted have all been internationalized,” says the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., who received the ABA Medal in 2004. “Jerry is in the forefront of that. He’s identified with that more than any other issue.”
Shestack served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights during the Carter administration, and he was president of the International League for Human Rights for 20 years. He was a founder and the first chair of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First), and he has served as general counsel of Amnesty International in the United States.
At the ABA, Shestack helped found the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities in the 1960s and served as one of its first chairs, in 1970-71. In that post, he created committees to support the rights of women and American Indians.
“The ABA has come a long way since then,” Shestack says. “I once said the idea of the section was to bring the ABA into the 21st century kicking and screaming, and one member of the House of Delegates wanted to hold me in contempt. It was dismissed out of hand.”
Shestack also was the first chair of what is now the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, chaired the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, and helped found the Center for Pro Bono. He currently serves as co-chair of the ABA Center for Human Rights.
As ABA president in 1997-98, Shestack focused on professionalism, and he appointed what became known as the Ethics 2000 Commission, which conducted a complete review of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. He also convened the first ABA conferences on racism and mental health, and a conference on human rights that was held at U.N. headquarters in New York City.
“Part of professionalism is helping others,” Shestack says.