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Justice Sotomayor makes special appearance at Heritage Day

Sonia Sotomayor

How did Oysterponds Historical Society land U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as its special guest for Sunday’s Heritage Day celebration in Orient?

John Holzapfel, the historical society board’s president, simply wrote her a letter asking if she would participate in the event’s recitation of the Declaration of Independence following its Fourth of July parade — an annual tradition dating back more than 200 years.

Mr. Holzapfel said he decided to reach out to Justice Sotomayor because he knew she was familiar with the community. For the past several years, he said, she has summered with one of her staffers, who recently retired and lives in Orient.

“I got the phone call about six weeks ago,” Mr. Holzapfel said of receiving confirmation from Justice Sotomayor’s office that she would attend. “I felt excited and honored that she would think of us and be willing to give us time.”

The historical society was asked to keep Justice Sotomayor’s visit a secret until the day of the parade.

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said his department worked with the U.S. Marshal Service to organize security, which included plain-clothed Secret Service agents.

“It wasn’t publicized too far out of the Orient community, which is how they wanted it to be,” Chief Flatley said.

When Justice Sotomayor arrived, she was greeted by several historical society members. She told them this was the first time she had spent the Fourth of July weekend in Orient.

“You enticed me,” she told members after thanking them for the invitation.

Justice Sotomayor then toured the historical society’s grounds and enjoyed exhibits arranged in different rooms throughout the society’s Village House, including the Barque Washington painting, which depicts the hunting of a school of whales.

The painting was reported stolen in March 2001 when the historical society’s Hallock Building was under construction. Following an FBI investigation, it was returned to its rightful home in September. Justice Sotomayor joked that she hopes the historical society now has alarms in its buildings.

The second building Justice Sotomayor toured was the Old Point Schoolhouse. Moments later, she walked outside to the building’s front porch, where she was greeted with cheers and applause from the hundreds of people who had gathered on the lawn following the parade’s conclusion.

Justice Sotomayor’s appearance in Orient came nearly a week after she ruled with the Supreme Court’s majority to strike down portions of a Texas law aimed at reducing the number of abortion clinics in the state. The decision has ultimately strengthened constitutional protections for abortion rights.

On Sunday, Justice Sotomayor’s opening remarks included calling on citizens to continue “making this a more perfect Union.”

“It is important to remember that when they spoke in 1776 about all men being created equal, they were only talking about certain men and no women,” said Justice Sotomayor, who is the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice and the third woman appointed in the court’s history. “It took us 100 years to include people of color in our Constitution as equal … It took another 150 years for the Women’s Suffrage Act to be passed, so we weren’t born a perfect Union.

“That’s not what the forefathers imagined,” she continued. “What they imagined is that all of us as citizens and participants in this great country would continue down that road … Thank you for being here today and affirming that we are still active in trying to create that place our forefathers wished for.”

After Justice Sotomayor recited the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, the reading was completed by local residents Thomas Haley, Grace Griffin, Nate Stevenson, Ella Meredith-Jones, Jerie Newman and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski.

Orient resident and photographer Mary Latham said she thought it was very nice of Justice Sotomayor to have also spent time with the event’s volunteers.

“It meant so much that she made sure to come over and thank us all for our work and have a photo with us,” Ms. Latham said in an email.

Other participants said they were pleasantly surprised and honored to see Justice Sotomayor, who ruled last June with the Supreme Court’s majority to grant same-sex couples the right to marry.

Married couple Nancy Goldstein and Gail Cohan, who live part-time in Orient and attend the annual parade regularly, said they first learned Justice Sotomayor was going to make an appearance about a half hour before they arrived.

“I have never welled up listening to the Declaration of Independence — it was very touching,” Ms. Cohan said.

“She’s given us our rights,” Ms. Goldstein added. “Seeing her here, it was very moving.”

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Photo: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor signs a copy of ‘Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx’ for 9-year-old Adelaide Swartz of Orient. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Click on images below to enlarge photos by Jen Nuzzo.