Adams, Arlin Marvin

views updated


ADAMS, ARLIN MARVIN (1921– ), U.S. jurist, public servant, and legal educator. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Adams worked for a produce distributor during the Depression to pay for college at Temple University. When he graduated first in his class in 1941, the chair of the political science department took him by trolley to the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained a full scholarship for the young man by declaring to the law school registrar: "He is the best that we've ever had."

A day after Pearl Harbor, Adams volunteered for the Navy, received a commission, and in 1942 was sent to the north Pacific. After the war, he resumed his studies at Penn, where he served as editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated second in his class in 1947. He completed a clerkship with Horace Stern, probably Pennsylvania's greatest chief justice, and then joined Philadelphia's premier law firm, Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis. Adams earned a reputation as a brilliant, yet humble attorney, and after only three years he became the youngest associate in the firm's history to make partner. At this time, he also earned an M.A. in economics from Temple and Penn.

In 1963, Adams joined Governor William Scranton's cabinet. As Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare (1963–66), he instituted a medical program for indigents that anticipated Medicaid and developed educational training for poor children that became the prototype for the federal Head Start program. Scranton described Adams as "the ablest and most effective secretary of welfare that this Commonwealth has ever known."

When President Nixon nominated Adams for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the Senate unanimously approved the selection without holding any hearings. Adams served 18 years on the court (1969–87), earning the highest praise and ensuring himself a place alongside scholar-judges such as Learned Hand and Benjamin *Cardozo. As with Hand, appointment to the United States Supreme Court eluded Adams, although he was three times on the short list for selection to the High Court. While Adams wrote landmark opinions in several areas, his most enduring legacy came in decisions involving the First Amendment religion clauses. His erudite, careful opinions possessed a Burkian quality, striking a balance between the nation's commitment to institutional separation between church and state and recognition of a vital role for religion in public life. In a concurring opinion in Malnak v. Yogi (1979), Adams led the way in defining "religion" for constitutional purposes, fashioning a three-part test that widely influenced courts in America and in other nations.

In 1987, the indefatigable Adams returned to the Schnader firm, where he continued to accept major public duties, most notably as independent counsel (1990–95) to investigate irregularities in President Reagan's Department of Housing and Urban Development and as trustee in the New Era proceedings (1995), then the largest non-profit bankruptcy case in U.S. history. Adams achieved unparalleled results in both cases, securing 16 criminal convictions or guilty pleas in the hud scandal and obtaining a collection rate of over 90 percent in New Era, thereby saving numerous charities from financial ruin.

Throughout his life, Adams faithfully served academia, the community, and his religion. He held positions as chairman of Penn Law School's Board of Overseers (1985–92); president of the American Philosophical Society (1993–96), founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin; and president of Kneseth Israel, one of Philadelphia's oldest synagogues. For almost three decades, Adams taught a Freedom of Religion seminar at Penn Law School. The course inspired Adams to write numerous articles and A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty, a groundbreaking book that resurrected William Penn as a champion of religious freedom and asserted that the core value of the religion clauses was religious liberty, not separation of church and state.

In 2004, Penn Law School recognized "a lifetime of dedicated public service" by endowing a chair in constitutional law in his name. When he received the esteemed Philadelphia Award in 1997, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said: "[Adams] has accomplished more in his lifetime than a hundred ordinary heroes combined. … He saw that the rule of law had to be administered with a spirit of compassion and a caring for those in need."


A.M. Adams and C.J. Emmerich, A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty: The Constitutional Heritage of the Religion Clauses (1990).

[Charles J. Emmerich (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Adams, Arlin Marvin

Updated About content Print Article