LINCOLN — Jonathan Papik shared a story during his swearing-in ceremony Monday that shows how remaining grounded shouldn’t pose a problem for the youngest person ever appointed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The 36-year-old legal wunderkind from Omaha described how his young son, Bob, sounded a little anxious upon hearing that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch might come to the ceremony. It seems Bob was unsure whether he was ready to meet a judge.
Papik informed the boy that his father was now a judge.
“No Dad, a real judge,” Papik said to an eruption of laughter in the Warner Legislative Chamber at the Nebraska State Capitol.
It turns out that Bob, along with the rest of Papik’s family, friends and colleagues, got to meet the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice during a ceremony for the newest member of Nebraska’s high court.
The connection between the two traces to 2008, when Papik spent a year clerking for Gorsuch while he was a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Monday, Gorsuch described how he was struck that the recent graduate from Harvard Law School and product of tiny Stromsburg, Nebraska, had a remarkable intellectual acuity, a confidence without brashness and a character that was “fully formed.” The justice said that in Papik, he saw all the qualities that make up a fine judicial temperament.
“We judges are just the caretakers,” Gorsuch said. “The law is not ours to make. It is ours to uphold and to apply as fairly and as best we can.”
Gorsuch also told those gathered in the crowded chamber how Papik has a competitive streak. The two used to discuss cases on lunch-hour runs in Denver. On the occasions when they disagreed over a point of law, Gorsuch noticed that Papik picked up the pace in an apparent effort to win a race, if not an argument, with his boss.
The justice quoted the Greek philosopher Socrates in saying that a judge must “hear courteously, answer wisely, consider soberly and decide impartially.”
“I can assure all of you, the job is safe with him,” Gorsuch said to a chamber filled with lawyers, current and former judges and some of the state’s top elected officials.
Selected in March by Gov. Pete Ricketts, Papik now becomes the youngest appointment in the history of a court that dates to 1867, said John Hewitt, Papik’s former colleague at the Cline Williams Wright Johnson and Oldfather law firm. The previous youngest was Edward Carter, who was 37 when he was appointed to the court in 1935.
Papik replaces Judge Max Kelch of Papillion, who turned in his resignation in January and stepped down from the bench in February. Papik will be paid a starting salary of $173,700.
Monday’s ceremony brings the court up to six members, one shy of its full complement of judges. The governor will soon make another appointment to replace Judge John Wright, who died in March. When he does, Ricketts will have appointed a court majority.
Papik took the oath of office from Gorsuch with one hand raised, the other on a Bible held by Rachel Papik, the new judge’s wife of 15 years. The couple’s three children, Bob, Maggie and Noelle, watched from the front row.
In a brief speech after being outfitted in his robe, Papik said he has no illusions that his new job will be an easy one. But he pledged to do his best to apply the law faithfully and impartially.
“We are so fortunate to be governed by the rule of law and I am so honored to be a part of our system of justice,” he said.