Archive for Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dining with a justice

February 10, 2011

I had dinner on Friday night with an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I am still pinching myself.

I found her to be witty, approachable, bright, ambitious and humble, all wrapped into one Hispanic bundle. I was in such a hurry to get past the crowd that had gathered around her, I literally ran into her trying to get out of the way. At the time, however, I was unaware of whom I had collided with.

It was only later that a colleague of mine brought it to my attention. Sure enough, I turned around and there she was. That moment will be blazed in my mind for a long time. I wandered through the evening watching other colleagues who had gathered there for a celebration of Federal Judiciary in the District of Kansas — six hundred judges, lawyers and their families.

It was an awe-inspiring evening, more for its simplicity than pageantry, more for its embrace of history than for posturing for posterity and more for the recognition of the extraordinary accomplishments of ordinary people than for celebrating an elite few.

That may surprise some Kansans to think about the fact that we are a free state, even a free nation, because of the efforts of a few men and women who zealously advocated for the rights of men and women whom they would never meet and whose names would never cross their lips. They were ordinary, every day people like you and me, who aspired to change the world for others.

I knew many of the people gathered at that celebration; went to school with some of them; have watched them grow in wisdom and stature over the years. I can tell you that very few of them came from privileged backgrounds, but have worked their way from humble beginnings to where they are today.

As they have lifted themselves up, they have carried on their backs the hopes and dreams of others who have watched them and realized they too have a share in the dream of freedom, justice, success and opportunity beyond imagination.

Unless you have stood outside the mainstream, as have many women and ethnic minorities, you may not appreciate the struggle of those who have, and you may not be brought to tears, as I was, by Sotomayor’s story of walking with her staff along a boulevard in Washington D.C. one spring day when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. She talked about being suddenly embraced by a woman who wept and thanked her for raising the possibility of inclusion for other minority women.

“It was not,” she said, “anything I ever envisioned or anticipated — the outpouring of gratitude.”

She is just a girl who read Nancy Drew and watched Perry Mason; aspired to be a lawyer and became a Supreme Court justice. Who would have dreamed it? She, that’s who.

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