Forty years ago, if you found your way off the roads that trace out of Bombay and into the villages of Goa, India. If you moved through the dusty streets and found a young girl, playing with her siblings outside a small yard in a small house and you told her that in four decades she would be standing here, on this stage, in front of so many strong, intelligent women that continually inspire her, she would not believe you.
But that is because life had not taught her the lessons that come with tragedy and triumph. That little girl didn’t know how much she would learn about helping support a family after the sudden death of her father. The attention to family and the sacrifice to make a better life for all of them.
She hadn’t yet taken a risk and moved to Tehran to spread her wings and explore and fall in love. She would not know that she would marry a brilliant physician, who encouraged her dreams and brought her to this amazing country of opportunity. She wouldn’t know about the three wonderful children that would support her endeavors as she decided to go to law school. The daughters that would make her breakfast when she had to prepare for class that morning. The son that would go to the library with her and do his homework so she would do hers. The husband that knew she wanted to help people and, through legal aid, she would be able to do that. The family that went on the campaign trail with her when she ran for Judge.
This past June, I was honored to attend the First Pan American Judges’ Summit on Social Justice and the Franciscan Doctrine in the Vatican City and found inspiration in the words of His Holiness Pope Francis: “Esteemed magistrates, you have an essential role; allow me to tell you that …you are social poets…your noble and onerous mission requires devoting yourselves to the service of justice and the common good with the constant calling to ensure that the rights of the people especially those of the most vulnerable, be respected and guaranteed.” These words speak to the very heart of the mission and values of NAWJ and help inform the work we will do together in the coming year and beyond.
(Photo: Hon. Bernadette D’Souza being sworn in by Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.)
I am honored to serve as your President and stay the course of the impeccable leadership provided by Judge Tamila Ipema and all of our esteemed Past Presidents of NAWJ. NAWJ has flourished under her steady leadership, and this year she has managed challenging organizational change and an increasingly tumultuous situations with the utmost grace. It is my sincere hope that we will continue to benefit from her guidance and expertise in her role as Immediate Past President, and I look forward to working together to further the goals and progress of our organization. Tamila has set a standard of excellence for all that follow in her footsteps, and I am personally grateful for her kind support and encouragement that has made in possible for me to serve as your incoming President.
Stepping into this role, I am humbled by both the opportunity and responsibility of this office and inspired by the passion, grace and dedication of our leaders and membership. NAWJ provides a vital and unique source of community, support, diplomacy and integrity to our members and the individuals we serve. I look forward to working with you all as we tend our ongoing efforts and am determined to further our mission of protecting the rights of individuals, promoting fairness and equality in the courts, and expanding equal access to justice for marginalized populations.
NAWJ has set a standard of excellence through our programs and we often lead the change to face timely issues head-on. We serve as a conduit between young women and minorities in all stages of life and the legal field through our Color of Justice Program. We acknowledge the struggle of legal professionals facing sexual harassment in the workplace and provide education and activism through #WeToo In the Legal Workplace. Our ongoing collaborations with Federal and State Courts fight to end human trafficking-modern day enslavement of women and vulnerable communities. My theme for this year is Innovation Efforts to Improve Access to Justice through Global Judicial Leadership. I look forward to bolstering these efforts through support and leadership and will dedicate my term to seeking our further opportunities to expand our work to a global scale.
Just as important is continuing to act, in our duties and in our communities, as a sign of hope and inspiration. Our core mission of equality in the courtroom, both off the bench and on, serves as an example to those generations to come. We have to stay active, use our collective voices, sometimes louder to carry above the political din, to set a path for future women to pursue a career in the legal profession and become leaders in the court. This country is a country of opportunity. It is our duty to help make it a country of equal opportunity.
Shortly after my meeting with Pope Francis, my husband of 41 years unexpectedly passed away. Judge Ipema, all my esteemed friends in the NAWJ and my colleagues in my legal community back home have provided me with unwavering confidence, kindness and support and have been instrumental in my renewed dedication to accepting this honor and serving our community, local and global, to the very best of my ability.
Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’
When I look out over in this room, of this diverse, intelligent, strong and determined group of women, I see a group that puts every ounce of love they have in them in what they do. And because of that, we will bring good to the world we share with those around us. Justice for those that seek it. Equality for those that feel like they are still lost in the shadows. Hope and inspiration for the little girls in our cities, and towns and home who don’t yet know what they want to because – but through us can see what they can be.
NAWJ is unafraid to face new and unique threats to access to justice and address them as a collective. My sincere hope is that through our efforts we can benefit both our own jurisdictions and the larger global judiciary as a whole. I believe we are ready for this challenge, and I am eager to begin.
The Honorable Bernadette D’Souza
Parish of Orleans, Civil District Court, Louisiana