Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Supreme Court justice shares secrets, passions during DU visit

Sonia Sotomayor at DU

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at DU's Sturm College of Law on Aug. 26.

Many of the questions asked of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor during her visit to DU on Thursday came from students trying to talk like lawyers. The justice’s answers sounded like a lawyer talking to students — simple, straightforward and from the heart.

She spoke about how duties as a justice kept her from being with her recently hospitalized mother. How the most touching part of being nominated to the high court in 2009 was learning that her brother loved her. How she overcame growing up in a public housing project. How she had to work two jobs at Princeton University even though she was on full scholarship. How she spent summers reading grammar books to improve her writing and dealt with her anger when confronted by racism.

“I kept getting knocked down and I kept getting up,” she said. “That’s really hard to do. But getting up to try again helped me to succeed.”

The honesty made a strong impression with some of the 250 high school and college students who attended Sotomayor’s visit to DU’s Sturm College of Law.

“She wasn’t afraid to say what was real,” said Will Wytias, a senior at Denver’s East High School. “There was no fluff. She spoke eloquently and slowly so that everyone could understand. She spoke like a person speaking to people rather than a figure talking down.”

Ameerah Kindle, also a senior at East, agreed.

“She showed she’s real just like any of us even though she’s a Supreme Court justice,” Kindle said. “It was inspiring.”

Sotomayor, who was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama to replace Justice David Souter, came to DU at the invitation of the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence. The visit coincides with a judicial conference in Colorado Springs, where Sotomayor is both speaker and participant.

“Justice Sotomayor said she didn’t want to talk to lawyers, she wanted to talk to students,” said Kathleen Nalty, executive director of the campaign. The group accommodated, inviting scores of students from a range of schools.

The result was a freewheeling hour of questions from the students and answers that sometimes surprised — including one about the daunting feeling of being on the Supreme Court, where she feels there are “eight brilliant people and me.” Or that the debate experience she got in high school in New York helped her in every phase of being a lawyer and judge. Or that her first year on the court was “full of strangeness with a measure of magic — like living a fantasy.” Or that she wasn’t sure she even wanted to be a judge when in 1998 President Bill Clinton appointed her to the second circuit Court of Appeals. But opposition emerged so fast and furiously that “I couldn’t let them beat me.”

But there was more than reminiscence; Sotomayor had plenty of advice, too.

“I believe in getting into debt for education,” she said. “Get the best education at whatever the cost. There is no greater opener of doors than education. It lets you think about things more deeply and more sensitively.”

The first Hispanic justice, Sotomayor, 56, grew up in the Bronx, one of nine children of Puerto Rican parents. Her father spoke only Spanish and died when she was 9. Her mother, a nurse, raised the family as a single mother. Sotomayor became interested in law watching an episode of “Perry Mason” on TV and reading Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her way into Princeton, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1976. She got a law degree from Yale University three years later. She worked as a prosecutor in New York and at a private law firm before starting her career as a federal judge.

Sotomayor urged the students to learn to write well, saying it doesn’t matter how well you speak: “If you’ve made a strong case in your papers, you’re going to win.”

She also urged civic activism, saying that the most important time to influence society is when laws are being shaped.

“Waiting for the courts to rule is waiving your rights of citizenship,” she said. “Change requires more legislative action than court action.”


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