ETHEL SILVER SOROKIN: A LIFE WELL LIVED AND WELL WORTH REMEMBERING
By Mitchell W. Pearlman
Ethel Silver Sorokin died on December 11, 2012. Given the magnitude of the terrible tragedy that occurred in Newtown that week, it was easy for those who know little or nothing about Ethel to miss the news of her death. But her death – and more importantly her life – are well worth remembering. For along with her deceased husband, Milton, Ethel was one of the last of a breed of lawyers dedicated by principle to defending the First Amendment and Freedom of Information from the perpetual attacks against it.
Ethel was too modest to ever see herself as a role model or trendsetter. But she was both. Perhaps it is best to describe her as a pioneer, a term that lacks ego, but suggests toiling in unchartered territory. For she was among the first group of extraordinary women to become successful lawyers in their own right in a then unwelcoming profession that was then little more than a misogynistic “old boys club.”
After graduating from Vassar College – at the time an all-women’s school – where she was an exceptional student among a group of exceptional students and editor of the college newspaper, she attended the University of Connecticut School of Law, where she once again excelled academically and was selected editor-in-chief of the law review. She was one of only two women to graduate in her class.
A few years after graduating from law school, Ethel and Milton opened a law practice in Hartford. Partners in life and work, the Sorokins built a formidable practice representing individuals and businesses, while raising three accomplished children and engaging in numerous professional, civic and charitable causes. In fact, they never turned down a cause they believed in, or turned their back on an injustice they observed.
Two of those causes were the First Amendment and Freedom of Information.
Throughout their careers, Ethel and Milton represented the news media in many important cases. They fought for local newspapers and against cross-ownership of the various news media in order to give the public as many independent voices as possible on matters of civic importance. They fought to open government meetings and records so the public could better understand and debate the issues affecting them. Their work helped lead the way to passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1975 and in 1993, Milton became a member of the Freedom of Information Commission. Behind the scenes, Ethel assisted the commission’s staff in its legal work.
After Milton’s death in 1996 until recently, Ethel led the Center for First Amendment Rights, which she and Milton had founded and which, among other things, sponsors informative and provocative educational programs for adults and particularly for school children throughout Connecticut. The center is now affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
Ethel had a disarming way of getting people to help in her many causes, from giving civics lessons on local public access television to participating in legal symposia on sophisticated issues of constitutional law. She made people feel that they were the only ones who could possibly do the jobs she had in mind for them. On more than a few occasions I was the happy victim of her not so subtle manipulations. It was almost impossible to say no when Ethel asked you to do something. For it was never for herself; always for a greater purpose.
Ethel was also a most generous and thoughtful individual. Whether something good or bad happened to someone she knew, she would write a personal note in her barely legible handwriting congratulating or consoling them. If she read a book that she knew a friend would enjoy reading, she would send a copy to that friend. And she always donated to the causes her friends espoused, as she asked them without embarrassment to donate to hers.
Ethel’s life-journey did not take her far from her birthplace in Hartford to her lifelong home in West Hartford. To paraphrase a modern expression, however, she came a long way, baby.
As a woman, a beloved wife, mother, grandmother and friend, and as an esteemed lawyer and educator, Ethel had it all and did it all. She had a brilliant mind, yet remained remarkably humble. She demanded excellence from herself, but accepted the limitations of others. She sought little for herself, but asked much for those in need. No matter how difficult the task, she was the eternal optimist.
In life, Ethel Silver Sorokin was a humanitarian nonpareil, a trailblazer for women lawyers, and a shining beacon of light for those who follow in her footsteps. In death, Ethel will be greatly missed by all who knew her, as well as by those who unknowingly benefited from her extraordinary life.