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Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor (right) poses with Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson during a visit to the Air Force Academy Aug. 29. Sotomayor held an open forum for approximately 50 cadets and 20 faculty members from the Academy's Law and Political Science Departments to share her experiences about life as a justice on the nation's highest court. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Sarah Chambers)
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Supreme Court justice holds court at the Academy

Posted 8/30/2013   Updated 9/3/2013 Email story   Print story


by Amber Baillie
Academy Spirit staff writer

8/30/2013 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor held an open forum for approximately 50 cadets and 20 faculty members from the Academy's Law and Political Science Departments Thursday afternoon to share her experiences and field questions about life as a justice on the nation's highest court.

"The law, especially when you're practicing and a part of the Supreme Court, is something that is justice in a very different way than most people understand," she said to her audience in Fairchild Hall. "Our justice is not about finding a just answer because, in the courtroom, there is a winner of a case and a loser of a case. Because there is always a loser, there is a sense of humility that I have. First being that I don't have all the answers and second that the work I do has limits in the ways I can help our society. To give me some comfort in what I do, I come to speak to young people like you. You inspire me."

The U.S. Supreme Court hears 65-80 cases a term and each justice has a different way of preparing for an argument, Sotomayor said.

"I read my briefs when my law clerks do," she said. "I interact personally with my law clerks, telling them what my reactions are to the briefs, what questions I want them to focus on, and what issues I think parties may have not covered adequately. That way, when they're writing memos, they already have an idea of what I will need."

One cadet at the forum wanted to know the challenges Sotomayor faced growing up in poverty and as a minority.

"The greatest obstacle is lack of knowledge," Sotomayor said. "It's about figuring out how to live your life where you're expanding your knowledge about your opportunities. It was difficult learning English as a second language and having immigrant parents. Growing up, the only Academy I knew about was West Point. But today the world is different, and there is more than West Point. The biggest obstacle is not being limited by your circumstances. It's about understanding there are things available to you that you didn't even know existed, and to have that personal confidence to dream big, be bold and try new things."

Sotomayor said many inner city school children know nothing about opportunities such as the Air Force Academy.

"That's why when I visit inner city schools, I try and talk to kids about these opportunities," she said. "It still takes a bit of self-initiative to learn what is out there."

The associate justice said she hopes people remember her as someone who made the U.S. Supreme Court more accessible.

"I meet with students from grammar schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges because I think that's the greatest legacy I can leave behind," Sotomayor said. "In regards to what I hope my legacy will be as a justice, I don't know because that's preordaining an answer that I somehow want to create. I like the legal system and I want to uphold it with honor. I would like my opinions to be remembered for their clarity."

Sotomayor chose to practice law because it's where she finds personal fulfillment and intellectual gratification, she said.

"I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 10 years old," she said. "One of my favorite characters was Nancy Drew (a character in a fictional mystery series). I loved her because I loved puzzles and figuring out how things fit together, helping people puzzle out their lives and relationships. That's how I see the law. To me the law is service to your clients in society."

Maj. Eric Merriam, an assistant professor in the Academy's Law Department, said numerous cadets and faculty have expressed gratitude for Sotomayor's visit.

"Many have commented it was an experience they'll likely never forget," Merriam said. "The Department of Law's primary purpose for inviting Justice Sotomayor was for cadets to learn about the law and legal process from the perspective of someone at the pinnacle of the legal profession. Also, Justice Sotomayor's personal story is so moving and her visit accomplished the additional purpose of inspiring cadets to strive for excellence and to reach for their dreams."

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