Justice Sotomayor, Elves, and You

A girl who is passionate about the law sees it from a unique perspective

Three things the Parkville teenager noticed at the U.S. Supreme Court:

Sonia Sotomayor loves to drink coffee. Keeps two silver Thermoses at her elbow.

She and the other justices are not stoic, godlike figures. They are real people who rock their chairs and fidget like everyone else. Antonin Scalia is funny. Ruth Bader Ginsburg looks much younger than her photos.

And when it comes to debating the law, the justices let piercing questions fly like arrows. At times the queries seemed to Elizabeth You, 18, like an interrogation, which made her feel a little sorry for one lawyer.

“He seemed a little nervous,” she says.

You is a senior at Pembroke Hill High School, a teen who is passionate about the law and who seems every bit a future senator, governor or even president. Late last month she received a belated Christmas present: A trip to Washington to meet Sotomayor and see the Supreme Court in action.

It was a gift from a bunch of anonymous Elves (the Elves of Christmas Present) who wanted to bring joy to a teen struggling with cancer — Ewing’s sarcoma, stage four.

But she is not thinking about that right now. Instead, she is remembering all the details that made her visit with Sotomayor so sweet and yet so powerful. She shakes her head and giggles.

“I’m still processing it all. … You know, the justice has a plaque on her door that reads, ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history.’?”

Their meeting was short, she says, maybe five minutes. But it reinforced to You how very important the law is to everyday people. Sotomayor told her about seeing people protesting the health care bill as she drove into work that day.

“I told her,” You says, “that it was quite wonderful to have our system of the law because we have the ability to disagree or contradict or say we’re unhappy with whatever government is doing. … That’s quite a freedom.”

The way she speaks reveals a maturity beyond her years.

You is a teen who texts her friends in complete sentences — and uses the spell checker. She loves to make cupcakes. Her senior project is a report on how Martha Stewart found success by tapping into the public’s consciousness.

You longs to study political science and law. She dreams of running for political office in Missouri.

A vote for You is a vote for you!

Her visit with Sotomayor ended with the justice giving her an autographed photo. “Dream Big,” the justice scrawled across it.

But talking about dreaming big makes You’s eyes fill with tears.

She is in the biggest campaign of her life. Fighting against something so unfair that it should be repealed, or impeached, or denied and dropped, if the world’s most powerful politicians and legal scholars had the power to do that.

But there is no human debate on this issue.

In 2007, You’s hip hurt so badly that she limped. Doctors discovered what was causing the pain after an MRI. The C-word entered into her extraordinary vocabulary a week before her winter finals in her sophomore year. A biopsy a few weeks later — on her birthday, Dec. 27 — confirmed it.

“I dropped out of school that next semester because it was so much to deal with,” she says. She cries a little. “But I made up all the school work in the summer and caught up.”

She pauses, waiting for her emotions to catch up with her speaking self. She went back to school her junior year and will graduate with her class this year, she says. In between, she has spent summers in the Missouri YMCA Youth in Government program and at Missouri Girls State.

Her fingers touch a medallion on her neck — St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases. A friend gave it to her and it means a lot.

In the mock government, You got a bill passed into law and spoke inside the House chamber. She wrote briefs for legal cases and stories for the mock newspaper. She ran for governor of Mo-YIG and won. At Girls State, she was a senator. She met Gov. Jay Nixon.

She also went to Girls Nation in Washington. Her group did not get to see President Barack Obama, but she did meet with Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

She has gone to Children’s Mercy Hospital many times for chemotherapy, had surgeries on her lungs, traveled to The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for more tests, more cutting-edge treatments.

And the news has been difficult. Another lesion. … A slight shrinking of her tumor. … Another advance of renegade cells.

Still, You sees beyond this disease. Despite using crutches to walk, losing her shiny, black hair to chemotherapy a second time, and fighting off extreme fatigue with blood transfusions, her eyes can see beyond the clouds.

She knows that dreams are powerful weapons, able to take you beyond where you ever thought you could be. Her parents are Taiwanese; she is the first generation born in the United States. Their dreams brought them here.

Her dream now?

To see which East Coast university will accept her for the fall. Her eyes light up with the possibilities.

But she does not talk much about her plans beyond that.

She has this to say to anyone facing a foe as ugly and scary as cancer: “You have a right to feel like your world has ended, if that’s the way you want to feel.

“Everyone is dealt their own life battle, and there is always a choice how to live your life.”

But “you can’t put your life on pause, or else you’ll be missing out.”

You is missing nothing.

How the Elves made it all happen

In December, a group of anonymous volunteers wanted to do something special for Elizabeth You.

The Elves of Christmas Present have worked for 20 years sifting through families’ heartaches, trying to make Christmas extra special for those who have had a tough year.

The Elves’ gifts go beyond the ordinary store-bought presents. They try to tailor each gift to fit its recipient. Knowing You’s passion for the law, their idea was to get a high-ranking official or judge to send her a letter of encouragement.

At times, it looked as if You’s gift was not going to happen.

But then, two days before Christmas, an attorney Elf reached the Supreme Court, even though its offices were closed for the holidays. He talked to a librarian, who called the secretary for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who called the justice at her New York home.

Sotomayor sent a letter overnight that arrived on Christmas Eve at a Kansas City office building that was closed for the holiday. But another Elf was waiting outside for the FedEx truck and intercepted the letter.

Despite a heavy snowstorm on Christmas Eve, the justice’s letter was delivered to You that evening by yet another Elf.

The justice, in her letter, invited You to visit her in Washington. On March 23, the family flew to Washington D.C. for a three day stay and watched an argument before the Supreme Court as special guests of Justice Sotomayor, and chatted with her in her chambers.

“I’m not so sure about believing in Santa Claus,” You says with a grin, “but I definitely believe in Elves.”

LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star