Supreme ‘Rock Star’ connects with Colorado youths

Special to The Colorado Statesman

Justice isn’t always blind — sometimes, it’s kind.

That was the message projected Thursday by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic ever named to the nation’s highest court and only the third woman to serve on the tribunal.

In an emotional and highly personal interaction with 100 eighth, ninth and tenth graders — one drawn from each of Colorado’s 100 state legislative districts — Sotomayor didn’t come across as the Princeton- and Yale- trained legal “Rock Star” that Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Bender introduced her as. She acted more like your favorite aunt — a wise and kindly woman who has taken some hard knocks in her own life but who learned from them and overcame them to achieve her highest dreams.

Sotomayor made that message explicit after telling the students they would each receive a copy of her book, “My Beloved World,” as a gift from the Colorado Supreme Court. Born in the Bronx to an impoverished Puerto Rican family headed by an alcoholic father and a loving but overburdened mother, the High Court justice said she wrote the memoir detailing the adversity she had faced in her own youth in the hope that her readers would think: “If she can make it, so can I.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visited with Kaitlyn Dickinson, a student from Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, during a celebration to dedicate the new Judicial Center in Denver.
Pool photos by RJ Sangosti /The Denver Post

Sotomayor laughed at her introduction from Chief Justice Bender, and confessed, “It’s still unusual for me when someone refers to me as a ‘rock star.’ Inside I still feel much younger, I still feel the same as that little girl.”

In addition to dealing with poverty and family issues, “that little girl” also had to cope with juvenile diabetes, a condition diagnosed in her at age seven. Less was known about controlling that disease at that time — 1961 — than today and Sotomayor told her audience frankly that “I expected not to live past age 40.”

In the event, the girl who would grow up to be the first Latina Justice met the challenges of diabetes with the same determination she did with other difficulties in her life and looked back on her earlier fears with special delight on her fiftieth birthday, she told her audience at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center that she would help formally dedicate later that day.

In fact, one of the most moving moments of her discussions with the students came when she gave credit for “the one gift I got from my diabetes — the gift of understanding how precious life is.”

Another gift from the woman who told her young audience that “When I was your age, I didn’t know what the Supreme Court was” came from those doughty performances of actor Raymond Burr in the Perry Mason shows she watched as a child on her black and white television.

“My biggest challenges came with dealing with people expectations — and having fun proving them wrong,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor tells Colorado students.
Pool photos by RJ Sangosti /The Denver Post

“Your parents aren’t going to want to hear this, but I learned a lot from television,” she laughed. “It taught me about lawyers and the law. There were no lawyers in my family but watching Perry Mason started me thinking about becoming one. You can’t dream unless you know what the possibilities are because dreams don’t just pop up in your head.”

As Chief Justice Bender noted afterwards, Justice Sotomayor spoke to the audience for only a few moments before coming off the podium to move among the students and converse with them. The ease and humility with which she fielded their questions quickly connected her with the young audience — each of whom had already won a competition just to be there. The 100 students — one from each of Colorado’s legislative districts — were selected by the Colorado Youth Advisory Council from 1200 applicants. Many of the legislators who represent those districts, led by Senate President John Morse and Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, also attended the talk and met with their young constituents, as did parents and sponsors of the students.

“The hundred of you who are here have already achieved something,” she noted. “But the 1200 others who competed to be here did something just as important — you tried,” she said. “Unless you’re willing to do things you’re a little afraid of, to risk failure, you can’t dream.”

Another moving moment came when she responded to a question from a student who had lost her own mother about how she dealt with growing up without her father, who died when Sotomayor was nine.

Because her father was an alcoholic who often made their home uncomfortable, the justice replied, “There was a mixture of sadness and grief when he was gone.”

But she learned to remember the good times, such as his unrivaled skill at decorating a Christmas tree.
“He could hide the wires to every bulb,” she recalled fondly. “I’ve tried that and I’ve never been able to do it. But he could!”

From her own childhood and a failed marriage, Justice Sotomayor mused, she learned that, “There is no perfect father, no perfect mother — and no perfect daughter. But you have to look back at the good they have given you.”

That exchange between the Justice and the young woman questioning her happened to occur about three feet in front of this writer. She spoke so emotionally and personally that if there was a dry eye left in the Judicial Center atrium, it certainly wasn’t mine.

A young man from Silverthorne asked her about the challenges of being the first Latina justice.

“Many people view life in terms of stereotypes. They saw a poor Latina from the Bronx and thought ‘She can’t be smart,’” the Justice replied. “My biggest challenges came with dealing with people expectations — and having fun proving them wrong.”

But before she could rise to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor first had to deal with her own stereotypes of herself — especially in thinking that, as a poor Latina from the Bronx, she would be lucky to attend a local college, as several of her cousins were. When teachers urged her to apply to elite Ivy League colleges, she said she couldn’t afford it. Finally convinced that scholarships would be available she applied to Princeton and was admitted.

“Education buys your future,” she told the Colorado scholars. “You can’t do anything without being educated.”

Certainly, she added, she could have received a good education at the local schools where many of her family urged her to attend. But the Ivy League ties also provided contacts that helped propel her journey to the nation’s highest court.

After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in 1976, she received her law degree from Yale where she was an editor at the Yale Law Journal. She worked as an assistant for four and a half years before entering private practice in 1984 and was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. In 1997, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In May 2009, President Barack Obama named Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace retired Justice David Souter. Her nomination was confirmed by the Senate in August 2009 by a vote of 68–31.

Bob Ewegen logged a 45-year career in journalism before retiring after 36 years with The Denver Post in 2008. Now a certified paralegal, he is director of research and communications at The Ewegen Law Firm.