Photos: Sonia Sotomayor tells students to take chances, value education, overcome stereotypes

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a promise to the hundred eighth-, ninth- and tenth-graders to whom she spoke this morning.

"If anybody watching this today in this room ever becomes a justice," she told the teenagers at the new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which is being dedicated today, "I'll come swear you in."

For an hour, Sotomayor spoke to the teens and took questions on topics ranging from her hobbies as a child, to her diabetes, to racial profiling.

One student paid her a very public compliment. "By the way," said tenth-grader Joshua Ferkin, "very cute outfit."

Sotomayor, who is the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, emphasized that education is important and encouraged the students to choose a career they feel passionate about -- even if it means breaking ground. She said she faced challenges growing up in a housing project in the Bronx in New York City, including being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age seven and the death of her alcoholic father when she was nine years old.

As a young child, Sotomayor said she didn't even know what the Supreme Court was. Her first exposure to the justice system was through the television show Perry Mason, which was about a fictional defense attorney. "All of a sudden, television exposed me to this different career and I started to examine it and think about it as a possibility for myself," she said. An avid reader who brought books to the dinner table, Sotomayor did well in school and wound up going to an Ivy League college on a scholarship.

But despite her successes, Sotomayor said she faced stereotypes.

"A lot of people looked and said, 'Poor Latina from New York. She can't be smart enough,'" she said. "During my nomination process, there were a lot of people who wrote that. And it was very, very hurtful to me.... I knew that was because of stereotypes. ... That's really my biggest challenge: dealing with people's expectations and having fun proving them wrong."

Sotomayor was both energetic and patient in answering the students' questions. Instead of dispensing wisdom from a stage set up in the building's sunny rotunda, she walked among the seated students, standing just feet away from them as she spoke.

Asked for her best piece of advice, Sotomayor encouraged the students to take chances. On the topic of overcoming challenges, Sotomayor spoke about how her diabetes "taught me the preciousness of life." One student confessed that her own mother had passed away and asked Sotomayor what it was like growing up without her father. The justice said it was a combination of sadness and relief that her father's drinking could no longer cause problems at home. "I try to remember the moments of joy," Sotomayor said.

Another student asked a tough question: Do you ever feel like you have too much power? "I work really, really hard at trying to remain true to me," Sotomayor said.

In response to the question about racial profiling, Sotomayor said, "If you're thinking that...only profiling is going to prove who did something, you're probably going to be wrong most of the time.... Are there sort of indicators of sorts that have to be listened to? Absolutely.... If you've been following the news about the Boston bombing and about...following up on the activities of the two young men who were involved. Is that profiling? Could be. Is it something that you can't just ignore? Maybe sometimes not.

"It's a fine line society walks in trying to be fair."

Continue for more about Sonia Sotomayor's Denver appearance today. Eighth-grader Sarah Barber, who attends Wellington Middle School near Fort Collins, said she thought Sotomayor's talk was "really inspirational.... It was really cool to see her in person and learn how she got to be where she is today." The most important lesson she learned from Sotomayor was "to never give up," she added.

The one hundred teenagers were chosen by the Colorado Youth Advisory Council from more than one thousand applicants. Freshman Detrick Molina Peterson, who attends the private Watershed School in Boulder, said applying to meet Sotomayor "was my mom's idea. At first I thought it was going to be boring, but then when I heard that I got in, it was more exciting. Now, it's a real honor to come here."

Sotomayor will also speak at the dedication ceremony for the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center this afternoon, along with Governor John Hickenlooper. The 1:30 p.m. event will be live-streamed in English and in Spanish. To watch, click here.

Here are more photos from today's event.

More from our News archive: "Barry Fey cause of death confirmed, foundation and Red Rocks statue campaign launched."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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