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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia attended yesterday’s quarterly luncheon of the Philadelphia Bar Association, presenting the inaugural Professional Excellence Award named in his honor to Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen partner Jerome Shestack.

Current American Bar Association President Dennis Archer also attended the luncheon, which was held at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, using most of his time at the microphone to praise Shestack, himself a former head of the ABA.Outside the Hyatt, roughly a dozen protesters – many of them lawyers and paralegals employed in the public interest sector – gathered peacefully.

Before the award was presented, bar Chancellor Gabriel Bevilacqua recognized a group of local law school students who have been active in pro bono work, as well as students from the Mast Charter School.

Bevilacqua also directed the audience’s attention to the presence of former FBI Director Judge William Sessions and of Phil Martelli, coach of the St. Joseph’s University basketball team.

Bevilacqua also commended Audrey Talley, his immediate predecessor as chancellor, saying that “she never wavered” in her intense and enthusiastic efforts on behalf of the association. After a standing ovation from the audience, Talley thanked the bar’s members for what she called “one of the best years of my life.”

Archer spoke next, thanking Scalia and his fellow justices for their support of the rule of law. He then lauded Shestack for his “tireless rallying” of the ABA’s various committees, calling him “an embodiment of professionalism.” Archer said that Shestack continues to serve as a guide for each ABA president that has succeeded him.

Scalia Award committee co-chairman William Janssen, a partner of Bevilacqua’s at Saul Ewing, announced the award, after which Scalia presented to Shestack a small glass obelisk.

Shestack – whom Archer had described as a “consummate wordsmith” – began his remarks by joking that after such praiseful comments about him, it was “hardly respectable to remain vertical.”

Shestack also quipped that he had heard the vote on whether he should receive the Scalia Award was five to four.

Shestack extolled Scalia for adhering to the Constitution and Archer for his exemplary leadership of the ABA. He noted that a century ago, few women or minorities were welcome at the bar and the idea of a commitment to pro bono work was in its nascent form.

Contrasting the situation then to that of today, Shestack commented that the BlackBerry is the current mantra of today’s lawyers, and public esteem for members of the bar is low.

In counteracting those perceptions, Shestack said, lawyers must realize that comfort and affluence alone will bring little joy.

“[The law] is a profession that has guts and honor, and elicits ideals and responsibilities,” Shestack said.

The introduction of Shestack and conclusion of his speech were met by standing ovations from the audience.

Pepper Hamilton partner Joseph Del Raso, co-chairman of the Scalia Award committee, introduced Scalia.

“It’s close to Law Day … so I thought I’d say a few words today about the Constitution,” Scalia began after thanking his introducers and recognizing Shestack and the audience.

He recounted how at diplomatic dinners in Washington at which British dignitaries were present, it has been customary for one of the visitors to propose a toast to their queen, to which their American counterparts would respond with a toast to their president. Scalia remarked that Americans should instead propose toasts to the Constitution.

He noted that the United States is unique in that Americans judge nationalism according to political ideals, as opposed to race or place of birth.

“Frenchmen were Frenchmen before there was a French Constitution,” Scalia said. “Germans were Germans; Italians were Italians. The Constitution is what made us American. That’s one reason why it’s distinctive to us.”

He recounted a trip he had taken to Rome in which he had visited the offices of the Italian equivalent of the U.S. Justice Department. The offices were located in a building in which Martin Luther had stayed when visiting Rome, while the U.S. Justice Department is based in an “art deco” building in Washington. But during his visit, Scalia recalled, the Italian agency was celebrating its 100th anniversary.

“Big deal,” Scalia said. “My country was about to celebrate its bicentennial. Under this one Constitution, we have been a nation a century longer than Italy has been a nation.”

Scalia expressed his amazement at how the 55 national political leaders who created the Constitution met in Philadelphia for six-day-a-week seminars over the course of “what used to be a whole baseball season.”

“You know what would happen [today],” Scalia said. “The great Americans would come up from Washington, spend a weekend here, adopt some general propositions and let the details be worked out by staff.”

Scalia called it “curious” that the provisions of the Bill of Rights are most likely to be praised when the Bill of Rights was an afterthought to what the 55 leaders discussed in Philadelphia – how to structure the U.S. government.

“If you think that the Bill of Rights is what makes our Constitution great,” Scalia said, “think again.”

Scalia read the former U.S.S.R.’s equivalent of America’s First Amendment, noting the similarities between the two.

“Every tinhorn dictatorship in the world today has a bill of rights,” Scalia said.

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