Former ABA President Jerome Shestack, Known for His Human Rights Work, Dies at 88

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Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis

Corrected: Well-known human rights lawyer Jerome J. Shestack, who served as president of the ABA in 1997-98, died Thursday. He was 88.

In an obituary Friday, the Philadelphia Daily News reports that during his career, Shestack “was appalled by the violence that people heap upon each other in the world, sometimes seeing it with his own eyes, and ached to do something about it.”

Shestack chaired the International League for Human Rights and was the U.S. representative on the United Nations Human Rights Council during the Carter Administration. In 1993, he led a delegation of human-rights leaders to the Balkans. Of his visit, he said: “It is a bitter, disillusioning and dispiriting experience to see that people can treat each other with such brutality as we approach the 21st century.”

In an ABA Journal interview in 2006, when Shestack received the ABA Medal, the association’s highest honor, he recounted two key influences on his legal career: a quote from Deuteronomy passed on from his grandfather, a rabbi; and an answer from his son.

The passage: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” And from his son, Jonathan, then 7, in answer to what it is that a lawyer does, “He helps people.”

“I never met a better definition,” Shestack said.

Shestack’s contributions to the bar, domestically and internationally, were extensive.

“With his tireless work for human rights and the Rule of Law, Jerry made a positive difference in the lives of so many, not only in our country, but around the world,” ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III said Friday. “The ABA has lost an inspiring leader, but the fruits of his labors will long be to our collective benefit. Jerry will be missed.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also mourned his death, issuing a statement noting that Shestack, “He was a committed public servant and a dogged defender of human rights. Countless women and men are better off because of Jerry.”

Shestack, said Clinton, “was unwavering in his commitment to the highest of American values and international human rights standards. Jerry was an effective advocate for the causes—and people—he cared about because he had a rare mix of wonderful qualities: optimism, resilience, humor, a thick skin, and a way of making everyone feel at ease.”

In a statement (PDF) Friday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said it was saddened by the news of Shestack’s passing:

“Jerry, as he was known across the Lawyers’ Committee, will be sorely missed. Throughout his long and storied career he fought tirelessly to protect civil and human rights, and among his many contributions and accomplishments was his pivotal role in the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee.”

The Lawyers’ Committee notes that in 1963, after a historic televised address by President John F. Kennedy, Shestack met with other prominent attorneys at the White House and indeed was instrumental in helping to organize the event.

“That meeting led to the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee and served to immediately engage the legal community in upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of African Americans and civil rights activists and supporters,” the Lawyers’ Committee states.

At the ABA, Shestack helped found the Section of Indi­vidual Rights and Responsibilities in the 1960s and was one of its first chairs. He was also 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 also served on the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary and co-chaired the ABA Center for Human Rights.

Before earning a law degree from Harvard, Shestack, a retired partner of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, served in the Navy as a gunnery officer in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Shestack died Thursday of renal failure, surrounded by his family, according to a family statement (PDF).

He is survived by Marciarose, his wife of 60 years and a prominent Philadelphia anchor woman and newspaper columnist. They met when he was attending Harvard on the GI Bill and she was a 16-year-old freshman at Emerson College in Boston. He is also survived by two children, Jonathan Shestack of Los Angeles and Jennifer Doss of Philadelphia, and five grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be sent to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Descartes Institute, for furthering communications for people with autism.

Also see:

Philadelphia Business Journal: “Former ABA president Jerome Shestack, 88, dies”

Schnader (press release): “Schnader Honors the Life and Legacy of Jerome J. Shestack”

ABA Journal: “A Man of Many Firsts: Human Rights Pioneer Jerome Shestack Will Receive ABA Medal at Annual Meeting” ‘Champions of Justice’ Share $500,000 Prize

Last updated Monday to add the statement from Hillary Clinton.

Last updated Sept. 6 to correct the biblical reference and to correctly note that Shestack was a member of the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.


Last updated Sept. 6 to correct the biblical reference and to correctly note that Shestack was a member of the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.

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