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UC Berkeley’s Choper receives Witkin award

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

For more than 50 years, renowned constitutional scholar Jesse H. Choper has been inspiring law students and teaching them, as outgoing State Bar president Jon Streeter put it, “how to think like a lawyer.” Last month, Choper was recognized for those and myriad other contributions to the legal profession with the Bernard E. Witkin Medal.

Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at UC Berkeley School of Law, Choper received the lifetime achievement award on Oct. 12 at the State Bar's Annual Meeting in Monterey. Established in 1993, the Witkin Medal recognizes lawyers, judges and legal scholars whose extraordinary work has helped to shape the legal landscape. Past recipients including Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein of the Second District California Court of Appeal, former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and Beth Jay, principal attorney to the Chief Justice of California.

In a recent interview, Choper recalled looking at the list of past recipients after learning he would be receiving the award and being very pleased and extremely honored to join the group.

“To be listed with those people ... what can I say? It is very, very nice,” he said.

Streeter, a former student of Choper’s, presented him with the award and credited his onetime professor with helping to mold generations of lawyers and instilling in them the importance of service.

“He truly represents the very best of the legal profession,” Streeter said. “He is an example to all of us.”

A lecturer, author and expert on constitutional and corporation law, Choper got his start after law school clerking for Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court. But he soon discovered his calling was academia, landing teaching jobs at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota Law School before joining the Berkeley faculty in 1965.

“Had he chosen to practice law, I am sure he would have been among the most distinguished in the country,” Streeter said.

Fellow Berkeley Law Professor John Yoo said he could think of no other law professor in the state more deserving of the award.

“He is one of the most influential scholars of constitutional law of his generation, a beloved teacher and colleague …” he wrote in an email. “Generations of lawyers in California have learned constitutional law or corporations from him.

“And, most importantly, he loves the sport of kings,” Yoo said, referring to Choper's interest in horse racing. Choper currently serves on the California Horse Racing Board.

During his decades at Berkeley, Choper has written numerous scholarly articles and books including two widely used casebooks, adding to the fields of constitutional and corporation law, his two main areas of expertise. He was dean of Berkeley Law (Boalt Hall) from 1982 to 1992 and has been a visiting professor at a number of universities including Harvard Law School, the University of Milan and the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Choper was one of three major lecturers at U.S. Law Week’s Annual Constitutional Law Conference for nearly 20 years and has also lectured at major universities throughout the country. He has received numerous awards. including the Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction at Berkeley Law and a James Wilson Award from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, its most prestigious alumni award.

His numerous publications include the books, “Judicial Review and the National Political Process: A Functional Reconsideration of the Role of the Supreme Court” and “Securing Religious Liberty: Principles for Judicial Interpretation of the Religion Clauses.”

Judy Gold, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Project who took Choper's popular corporation law class in the late 1970s, recalled the lecture hall being so full, “there were people hanging from the rafters.”

Being a woman in law school in the 1970s, Gold said she “didn't necessarily have a lot of support from her male professors. But Professor Choper was a huge exception to that.” Choper taught his students to approach legal problems from every angle, Gold said, and he himself could take any position on an issue and argue it masterfully.

“Students who attended Boalt and were lucky enough to have him as a professor were better lawyers for it,” she said. “He is just a phenomenal teacher.”