The journey of Judge Joan Lefkow

After the murders, she turned down plea after plea to speak in public. No to Larry King. No to Diane Sawyer. Yes, she says, when U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter asks her to fly to Washington to testify about judicial security in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Temporary pain relief: Be useful.

What had happened to Lefkow hadn't happened just to her. The assault on her family felt like an attack on all judges, on the family she joined the day she first put on her black judicial robe. She gives the date as reflexively as if it were her birthday: Nov. 9, 1982.

Lefkow figured early in her career that she was too shy to be a strutting courtroom attorney. But a judge? She liked to read and write. She liked to listen. She even liked lawyers.

More than that, she believed in justice and the justice system as deeply as she believed in God, the right to vote and the separation of church and state.

She also believed that every criminal was somehow crippled.

Female judges were scarce when Lefkow was appointed a magistrate, but the field was good for women. Pay equal to a man's. Negotiable hours that made it possible to bring up children. Respect.

When she had her fourth child, at 44, she helped start a child-care center in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. It's still there.

By 1994, President Bill Clinton was scouting for women to name as federal judges. Lefkow applied. She wasn't chosen.

For the next six years, even as she became a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge, she applied over and over. Over and over, other women, her friends, got the job.

Finally, on Sept. 7, 2000, in proof of what one speaker that day called her "absolute, enduring persistence," Lefkow stood in a crowded courtroom to take the oath of office. She felt like Dorothy in Oz.

She talked about the family farm, the Kansas plains, her small town and the unknown world into which her mother had dispatched her for an education.

She placed a hand on a Bible held by her daughter Laura and, with her children, husband, siblings and mother as witnesses, solemnly swore to administer justice equally to rich and poor.

So help her God.

On a bright May day almost five years later, she walks into a dim, paneled Senate hearing room. She has become what she ruefully calls "the poster child" for the hazards of the judge's job.

She flinches at the pack of photographers crouched on the floor, clicking, clicking, clicking at the widowed judge in her cream-colored skirt suit and fresh haircut.

Her voice is strong, though, as she speaks, sitting at a massive table, sometimes looking down at the text she'd labored on for days, sometimes glancing up at the three senators who'd shown up to listen.

Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois are there and from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, the lone Republican.

Occasionally she adjusts her reading glasses as she talks of the need to make judicial safety a priority. To better fund the U.S. Marshals Service, which protects judges and their courtrooms. To finance home security systems for judges. To limit the Internet posting of judges' addresses and personal information.

She quotes from Bill Clinton's condolence letter: "the madness in the shadows of modern life."

Her daughters sit behind her, but she has deleted their names from her speech, an attempt to protect their privacy and safety.