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Conversation with Sonia Sotomayor

Justice Sonia Sotomayor offers personal window into Supreme Court

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FAIRBANKS — With a few simple gestures, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor brought the personal side of the high court to Fairbanks on Sunday night.

As the final speaker of this season’s UAF Summer Sessions and Lifelong Learning events, Sotomayor spent nearly all of the 11/2-hour event walking up and down the aisles of the Davis Concert Hall, taking her time to shake hands, give hugs and exchange a few personal words with members of the audience.

The justice took pre-submitted questions, which ranged from questions about the inner workings of the court and its trends to her own life experience.

When she would stop to answer a question — often taking as much as 10 minutes to dive in and explain in great depth issues facing the court — she was seemingly talking directly to the people around her, making eye contact, putting a hand on a shoulder or leaning on a railing.

Sotomayor placed a hand on West Valley High School history teacher Heather Damario’s shoulder while explaining the qualities needed by a good judge.

“What you’re asking judges to do is decide issues that you have struggled with and thought about and have driven you crazy for a period of time,” she said. “Experts in the sciences and medicine and every human we know comes to court to ask us to answer their questions. The only way we can do that is, do we have sufficient curiosity to be constantly learning something new?”

And her answers would often include a personal touch of humor.

“I’ve often said to people, ‘I love being a voyeur,’” she said, still talking about curiosity on the bench. “That’s what voyeurs and judges do, we look into people’s lives. I get to look in and see the very good, and sometimes the very bad, but then I get to leave. I get the next case, there’s a lot of fun in that.”

After the event ended, many people seemed starstruck by Sotomayor’s approach to the audience.

“She made the court seem so much more accessible with how personal she was with everybody,” Damario said. “She’s just so personable, and I thought that was very impressive for someone of her caliber.”

Damario, who runs the Model United Nations club and a new national history club at the high school, kept notes on the event program, which was covered in quotes and ideas she might apply to the classroom.

Particularly important to Damario were messages about the importance for every child to have an adult who unconditionally believes in them, as well Sotomayor’s response to a question about affirmative action.

Sotomayor made history as the first Hispanic to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Sunday, she reflected on her formative experiences around her heritage.

She said a pilot affirmative action program at her high school in the Bronx helped her with admission into Princeton, which put her on the path to serve on the Supreme Court. At the time, she said she struggled to answer challenges as to why she deserved entry over non-minority students. Now, she said she’s come to see affirmative action is a recognition of potential.

“I felt the indictment that there’s something seriously wrong about looking at students and their promise because that’s what affirmative action is about,” she said. “Every person who has a child going to school should hope that that’s what schools are doing because if you’re measuring students and their worth and their potential simply by quantitative numbers — what their SAT scores are, what grade they received in school — you’re going to do a disservice to so many individuals.”

Much of Sotomayor’s answers revolved around the importance of public service and its role in shaping the kinds of communities we live in. She said that’s what drove her to serve as a justice, but stressed that change can come from all different places, whether it’s volunteering with the needy or serving on a school board.

“I challenge you to make a better world with me,” she said.

Even when it comes to her own legacy, she acknowledged she doesn’t know if she’ll be remembered for some great opinion she’ll pen, but said she hopes she’ll be remembered for the changes she makes on a smaller scale — small moments like the hundreds of small, momentary connections she made with a handshake, hug or smile while walking through the hall Sunday night.

“I don’t know if I can survive centuries, but I know that I can expand the reach of my life by every life I touch,” she said.

“Every person who hears me talk or reads my book or reads one of my opinions and it changes them in some way, big or small, then I have perpetuated my life. That’s the legacy that I want. That something I do makes a difference in someone’s life, and if it does then I think I have lived a meaningful life.”

The full video of the event will be available online through in the next few weeks.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.