U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed in 2009 as the first Hispanic member on the bench of the nation’s highest court, spoke during a fireside chat-style event to an audience of nearly 1,800 at CU Boulder’s Macky Auditorium on Sept. 2.
Justice Sotomayor, a self-described antsy type whose mother called her “aji,” or chili pepper, walked the aisles of the hall, shaking people’s hands as she reflected on questions submitted by audience members and presented by law Professor Melissa Hart.
Hosted by the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law, which is directed by Hart, Justice Sotomayor spoke on everything from the three books that have had the greatest impact on her, including the Bible, Don Quixote and Lord of the Flies, to the biggest surprise about her job, how hard it is. She discussed which types of cases are most difficult to decide – those involving statutes, or laws made legislatively, versus those involving constitutional questions – and the process of writing, both in the legal and literary realms.
A believer that no one succeeds by him or herself, the justice responded with words of wisdom on how to thrive, especially for people of color, with a description of overcoming discouragement from others with self-worth and determination.
You have to say, ‘What you believe about me is not what’s important, what’s important is what I believe about myself,’” she said. “For every brick wall that stands in your path, you can work with others to knock it down, or figure out a way around it.”
Third-year Colorado Law student Tyler Park, who is specializing in telecom and technology law with an international focus on Latin America, was particularly excited to hear Sotomayor speak.
“She is legal royalty, one of the titans of our profession,” said Park. “Justice Sotomayor in particular is a justice who I am fascinated by because she is a newer appointment and has an interesting perspective on what it has been like over the past few years to be on the court, and she will be on the bench for a large part of my lifetime.
“To have our school be one of the few that a Supreme Court justice will visit this year means a lot to me,” he said. “I am proud to be a member of this school.”
Also in attendance were over 300 high school students from Del Norte, Wray, Longmont, Fort Collins and other parts of Colorado. Many high school and law students were able to attend a private session and lunch, hosted by CU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, with Justice Sotomayor before the public conversation.
Justice Sotomayor’s appearance, which was live-streamed to hundreds more at CU Boulder’s Wolf Law Building, CU Denver, CU Anschutz and CU South Denver, marked the White Center’s fifth John Paul Stevens Lecture.
The event nearly annually brings a distinguished jurist to the CU Boulder campus. The past jurists have been Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor and the late Antonin Scalia.
Justice Sotomayor said of the event’s namesake, Justice Stevens, that his tutelage, when the pair overlapped by about a year on the SCOTUS bench, was invaluable to her, calling the retired jurist “an extraordinary servant to our Constitution.”