Even though a U.S. Supreme Court justice had to scrap most of his speech and speak off the cuff, there were still plenty of Deanell Tacha stories to go around Friday evening.
The Lawrence resident and 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge accepted one of the most prestigious awards for a federal judge in front of 250 people at the Dole Institute of Politics, including her friend Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Even though several others had covered what he wanted to say in his prepared speech, Alito regrouped.
He praised Tacha as an unflappable person, a mentor, a public servant, an advocate for the judicial branch and a shining example from the bench. Before becoming a judge, Tacha was on Kansas University's law school faculty and the vice chancellor for academic affairs.
She has also been active in philanthropic and community activities in Lawrence and in Kansas, in addition to serving on several judicial committees.
"That would be enough for a full-time job, but she actually had a day job during most of that period," said Alito, chairman of the three-member panel who selected Tacha for the 26th annual Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award.
Tacha credited her family, friends and colleagues for inspiring her to serve others.
"That unifies us," said Tacha, whom President Reagan appointed to the appellate bench in 1985. "We are bound together by believing in public service."
She said her story of coming from small-town Kansas to the federal bench emphasized the importance of high-quality public education. Tacha also mentioned the importance of keeping lawyers and judges involved in the community beyond their work.
Tacha and her husband, John, are two of Lawrence's most well-known public servants, said U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrum, also a Lawrence resident.
It was significant that Tacha chose to have the prestigious ceremony in Lawrence and at KU instead of at the Supreme Court building in Washington, he said.
"If there is a good cause to advance, she is there, ready and willing to serve," Lungstrum said.
The Devitt Award is administered by the American Judicature Society and funded by the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation. It honors federal judges whose careers are considered exemplary, and it includes a $15,000 honorarium.
Friends and colleagues recounted Tacha's reputation as a judge, an advocate for the federal court system and a civic leader.
"Judge Tacha is one of the best-known, widely respected and widely liked federal judges in the United States," said Judge Carolyn King, of the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Tacha was also lauded for her rise as a female federal judge.
"Deanell stands today on the shoulders of some great Kansas women," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said.
Tacha and Judge Sarah Evans Barker, of the southern district of Indiana, were both appointed in the mid-1980s.
"She became more than a fixture. Deanell became an example," Barker said.