So, turns out Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is – at least off the bench – just like us. The unflappable jurist was actually pretty jittery about appearing on the Kennedy Center Honors stage Sunday night.

“You have no idea how nervous I was,” she told us at the post-performance dinner. “Everyone who does this show is an accomplished actor or actress. Yes, I’m accustomed to public speaking- but not acting.” And so she rehearsed. . .and rehearsed. “I practice everything.”

Sotomayor, who hosted the tribute to opera diva Martina Arroyo, made history as the first Supreme Court justice to appear in the Honors show in its 36 years. And the crowd went nuts.

“You’re the only one who got a standing ovation just for walking across the stage,” Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein told her later on that night.

And can we talk about that dress? The woman most often draped in a black robe looked positively soignée in a midnight blue sleeveless gown with a scoop neckline. She had planned to wear another dress, but forgot it was at the dry cleaners – so she and a friend raced out Sunday morning to buy a replacement. “My friend said it was divine intervention because it was prettier than the one I had,” said Sotomayor.

This was a side of Sotomayor that we don’t normally see. And that, friends, is the glory of the Kennedy Center Honors: The annual gala draws A-listers from politics, music, Hollywood, and Broadway – all schmooshed together in intimate, unexpected ways.

Like Bill O’Reilly’s tribute to Herbie Hancock. (“I know,” O’Reilly deadpanned. “I’m surprised, too.”) Or Snoop Dogg urging the black-tie audience to put their hands in the air. And, readers, they did.

It’s that kind of eclectic mix that producers George and Michael Stevens look for. The father and son team recruit the talent who perform on stage for the five honorees. Michael told his dad, “I think, at least once in this century, the words ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Snoop Dogg,’ ought be said at the Kennedy Center Honors.”

But Snoop wasn’t at the dinner, nor was Garth Brooks or some of the other standouts from the show. The meal is the only chance most of the deep-pocket donors get to talk to their favorite honorees – Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine and Carlos Santana rounded out this year’s class – and on-stage performers.

It’s also the only real chance for the honorees to thank the performers. As he walked into the dinner, Joel stopped to shake hands with Wolf Blitzer, then exchanged shop talk (B or B flat?) with Rufus Wainwright, who ended Joel’s tribute with “New York State of Mind” and “Piano Man.”

What was it like to close the show, we asked Wainwright? “It was like being on the high dive at the Olympics and someone on the sidelines has a gun,” he told us. “And if you don’t do it perfectly, you die.” Oh, and he wants Sheila E., who tore it up in the Santana tribute, “to have my next baby.”

This is why all sorts of VIPs braved the icy roads for the night: Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife, Teresa, who lingered until almost midnight. (Kerry asked for Don Henley’s number, but Henley couldn’t remember and asked the guy standing next to him for help, and then gave it to Kerry’s aide.) Who else? Tony Bennett. Glenn Close, who subbed for Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, now in Tokyo.

Tons of CBS celebrities (Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King, Charlie Rose, Bob Schieffer, Bill Plante) because the network broadcasts the show every year. NBC’s David Gregory, Attorney General Eric Holder, Catherine Reynolds, Adrienne Arsht, Chief Justice John Roberts, Nancy Pelosi, Connie Milstein, Jeremy Bernard, Ted and Annette Lerner, and a jazzed Penny Pritzker. “I had a great time!” said the Commerce Secretary. “I’m a huge Billy Joel fan.”

Wouldn’t this make an awesome episode of “Scandal,” we asked creator Shonda Rhimes. “It’s possible, you never know,” said Rhimes, who was just appointed to the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees and sat in the president’s box Sunday.

The happiest guy in the room? Hard to pick with so much back slapping and photo ops, but probably Virginia’s Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe, an overnight star in a room of big names.

No, wait – it was Hancock, who was still laughing and talking and taking photos with fans until 1 a.m.: “I feel like
my feet haven’t touched the ground.”