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Would-Be Supreme Court Judge Looks Back on Long, Rich Career

October 2, 2013 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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Hon. Arlin Adams

When the gavel falls to signal the opening day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013-2014 term on Monday, Oct. 7, a prominent local attorney will be keeping a keen eye on the proceedings.

Among the issues the Hon. Arlin Adams cares deeply about are voting rights and corporate political influence, two areas on which the High Court announced landmark decisions during the past few years, and which are likely to be revisited in the months ahead.

If the Philadelphia native and longtime Jewish communal leader has more than a passing interest in the deliberations soon to take place in Washington, D.C., there’s probable cause.

Had history played out just a tad differently, the litigator, federal appeals court judge, independent prosecutor and one-time secretary of public welfare for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would have found himself part of that nine-member body.

By the time the call came from the White House in 1970 that President Richard Nixon was seriously considering him for a seat on the court, Adams had already carved out a distinguished record, both in politics and in law. After managing Nix­on’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, on which he served from 1969 to 1987.

“I knew him, he knew my record, and I agreed that it would be perfectly all right for him to consider me, but made great pains to point out that there were many others more qualified,” Adams, 92, said as he looked back on his long legal career.

The ensuing weeks brought a background check that probed every aspect of his life.

“They proceeded to interview friends as far back as public school, high school, college, law school — any activities I was involved in. In the end, I knew I was one of two principle candidates,” the Cheltenham resident recalled. “I was not surprised that somebody else was appointed — most lawyers aspire to that very august position, and I was realistic enough to know it.”

The “somebody else” turned out to be William Rehnquist, who would go on to become the 16th chief justice of the United States.

The second president to reach out was Gerald Ford, who invited Adams and his wife, Neysa, to the White House for dinner. That time, although Adams had solid backing from former Pennsylvania Gov. Wil­liam Scranton, the seat went to John Paul Stevens in 1975.

Eight years later, Adams’ longtime friend Walter Annenberg suggested Adams to Ron­ald Reagan after the Senate turned down the nomination of the highly controversial Robert Bork. But Reagan turned instead to Anthony Kennedy, who took the bench in 1988.

The son of a men’s hat retailer from Kansas and a Hungarian emigre, Adams says he doesn’t look back in regret over an opportunity missed. Rather than dwelling on the “what ifs,” he said, he’s “thrilled and honored as an American citizen” to have been recognized in the first place.

As multifaceted as Adams’ law career has been, his Jewish activism has been equally robust and long lived.

When he was 5, a preschool teacher at Congregation Adath Jesh­urun, then at Broad and Diamond streets, thrust a small tzedakah box into his hands.

With the Depression looming, the Federation of Jewish Charities — forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Great­er Philadelphia — believed that even a couple of pennies a week could make a difference in a hungry person’s life, and that it’s never too early to expose children to the value of communal service.

The lesson remains hardwired into Adams’ DNA.

Throughout his partnership in the Philadelphia law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lew­is LLP, Adams has made service to the community — both Jewish and secular — a second career.

Anyone who’s been sick in Philadelphia, who’s visited a museum or interacted with the judiciary system has likely encountered his name. He has served as chairman of the Albert Einstein Medical Center and founder and first chairman of what is now Moss Rehab. He was an original trustee with the National Constitution Center, a trustee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Adams also was a Federation vice president and chairman of its Long Range Planning Committee, among other roles.

“Getting involved — I think that’s what my life is about,” Adams reflected during an interview in the firm’s Arlin Adams Room in the PNC Building at 16th and Market streets, where he continues to attend meetings  after retiring as counsel to the Center City firm in 2012.

“When you are fortunate enough to have good health, a good job and a good family, other than giving, there’s no excuse for being around.”

Next month will bring yet another honor. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which works to ensure fair and impartial courts, will salute Adams at a banquet marking the state­wide organization’s 25th anniversary. The keynote speaker will be retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day ­O’Connor, who might easily have been a colleague had things worked out differently.

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