Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Calif., as part of her My Beloved World book tour in January.
The evening started later than planned, as the security check had slowed the seating process. As I waited excitedly with friends, they asked me to name the most remarkable person I’d ever heard speak. The benefit of my eight years as an elected official in Silicon Valley had exposed me to some of the most remarkable and famous people in the world. A few names came to mind, but later that evening, I made a mental note of revising my response to be Justice Sotomayor. While we waited, I called my mom to challenge her to guess who we were about to hear speak, taunting her with clues.
I thought back to Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing four years prior and the flak she’d taken for being an intelligent woman of principle. I recalled the disdain with which some senators had spit out her once self-reference as a “wise Latina.” At the time, I’d wanted to create a “Wise Latina Wannabe” T-shirt.
When Justice Sotomayor arrived, she began with thank-yous to her host, her interviewer, and the audience. She told her story well and answered audience questions thoughtfully. And she ended with a promise: that she would stay until everyone in the packed auditorium who had brought a book to be signed, had it signed.
The audience lined up. I was seated high in the mezzanine, so my wait would be long. My friends left, since it was a school night. I briefly considered leaving as well, given the late hour, but it occurred to me I would never have this chance again. So I settled back in my chair and began reading her autobiography. I thought about — and appreciated — her commitment to sign every copy of her book in the auditorium. She didn’t have to. Folks would still buy her book, she had a job for life, and she must be tired, between the traveling, lecturing, and interviewing.
But she stayed. She paid special attention to the kids, asking their names and personalizing her entry in their books.
It took about an hour and a half to reach her, and she still had a half hour to go. I nodded to the burly security guard, saying, “Take care of her.” He smiled, “Oh, don’t worry, we will.” I brought two books — one for a Latina colleague who was an even bigger fan than I, but could not attend.
As they slid my open books over to her, I spoke the comment that had come to mind: “You make me proud to be an American.” She smiled, without looking up.
Then, it suddenly occurred to me that she was one of the nine people who would decide on the fate of marriage equality within a few short months. I thought of the impact of her decisions on people’s lives — her power to interpret the U.S. Constitution — and the statement of equality that a positive ruling would represent. Without thinking, I emotionally mumbled, “When you consider same-sex marriage, please be kind to my folks.”
She stopped, mid-signature, and set down her pen. She looked me right in the eye, reached out and took my hand. For just a moment, she held my hand and gazed. Then, without a word, she returned to her task: picked up the pen and completed her signature.
I had asked no question, and she offered no response. But in that moment, I felt safe. And left the theater believing she will extend the same care and respect to the LGBT community that she does to her own Latino community, to all Americans. I have no doubt.
The next morning, before leaving for work, I looked at both signatures before choosing the book to take for my colleague. I kept the one with a broken signature, the one in which Sotomayor had paused midway.
JAMIE McLEOD is a former Santa Clara City Council member.