Contact CU Independent General Assignment Editor Trinity Clark at Trinity.Clark@colorado.edu.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor engaged audience members and put the U.S. Marshals traveling with her on edge at the University of Colorado Boulder Friday afternoon when she declined her spot onstage.
Instead, Sotomayor chose to walk the aisles of Macky Auditorium, shaking hands and answering pre-submitted questions from nearly 2,000 audience members. She joked that her mother had always called her “aji,” the Spanish word for chili pepper, because she could never sit still.
Sotomayor, 62, is the first Latina and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court. A Princeton University and Yale Law School graduate, she served on the U.S. District Court in New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before President Barack Obama nominated her to the nation’s highest court in 2009.
Sotomayor’s Q&A was part of the annual John Paul Stevens Lecture series at CU. This event, which began in 2011, has previously included visits from Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sandra Day O’Connor and the late Antonin Scalia.
But the justice’s conversational style made the event far less than a traditional lecture. She responded to questions regarding which three books have had the greatest impact on her (to which she answered the Bible, Don Quixote and Lord of the Flies), as well as inquiries surrounding the difficulty of her position.
One question asked which of her opinions she was proudest of, prompting Sotomayor to discuss one of her “most favorite people in the whole world” — her mentor and the lecture’s namesake, Justice Stevens.
“[Stevens] gave me the courage to understand that it was important to voice those principals that one believed, even when you stood alone,” she said.
Melissa Hart, a professor at CU’s law school and director of the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law, invited Sotomayor to speak at CU. Hart also moderated the event.
When Hart asked if the justice had any words of wisdom for people of color, Sotomayor emphasized the importance of firm values and determination.
“For every brick wall that stands in your path, you can work with others to knock it down or figure out a way to get around it,” she said.
Sotomayor went on to compare herself to “the little engine that could,” claiming that the worst thing someone could do was to claim she couldn’t do something.
“That’s a surefire way to get me all revved up to prove you wrong,” she said, smiling.
CU was Sotomayor’s final stop on her two-day visit in Colorado; she had previously spoken at the 10th Circuit Bench and Bar Conference in Colorado Springs as well as at Metropolitan State University of Denver.