Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice and the first sitting justice to visit the CNMI, still managed to impress and inspire many Commonwealth students, judges, and lawyers despite her short, one-day visit.
Sotomayor conducted Sunday afternoon a two-hour conversatorio [Spanish for conversation] at the district court courtroom with members of the NMI Bar, court staff, and selected students and members of the 2011 Mock Trial competition. Students from Tinian and Rota also joined the program via videoconference.
The media was not allowed in during the conversatorio but Saipan Tribune was told that Sotomayor surprised the participants when she changed the seating arrangement, letting the students sit in front of her instead of the judges and other VIP guests.
Dung Hee Im, a student of Marianas Baptist Academy and a member of 2011 Mock Trial champion team, said she wants to become a prosecutor as Sotomayor was a prosecutor too.
“I was very inspired with what she had said,” Im said, adding that Sotomayor was very nice and that she’s very honored to meet her. “Although she had many obstacles and problems she overcame them.”
Im asked Sotomayor if she thinks the separation of powers is effective. Sotomayor reportedly replied that since America has been working for more than 200 years, it is effective and that powers have been separated equally.
“She believes it’s all good,” Im said.
Manatsu Omori, another member of last year’s Mock Trial champion team from MBA, said he initially thought that Sotomayor would be a “little bit serious.”
“She’s quite the opposite. She loves to talk. She loves to joke around. And when she’s there you feel like talking also,” Omori said.
Omori’s question focused on Sotomayor’s Hispanic background, saying that being the first Hispanic justice there’s sure to be some challenges that she has faced with some people. He asked her how she faces those problems and how she focuses on her job.
Omori said that Sotomayor narrated that as she was starting with her law career, she was rejected by so many law firms because she was “Hispanic.”
Omori said that Sotomayor told him to just keep working hard. “As long as you believe in yourself, you keep trying working hard, things can be accomplished,” Omori said, quoting the justice.
Jodel Fernandez, also a member of the MBA champion team, said that when she went in she was feeling really uncomfortable and kind of scared.
“The way she talked to us, she made us feel comfortable. She was really humble. She was like relating herself as a student,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez asked Sotomayor why she chose to be a prosecutor instead of a defense attorney. Sotomayor reportedly replied that what got her into becoming a prosecutor was a TV show.
“From there, she told the story of one of the episodes that made her interested…the idea to become an attorney and more specifically a prosecutor,” she said.
Board of Education member Galvin Deleon Guerrero said that Sotomayor was very inspiring to the students.
“It’s very inspiring for them to hear Justice Sotomayor’s humble origins. She just worked hard. That’s her point. She kept on emphasizing: That you just keep on working hard,” Deleon Guerrero said.
Public School System legal counsel Kelley Butcher said she wished her son could have attended the conversatorio because Sotomayor was so inspirational.
“She was really giving her message to the students and really giving them that inspiration and hope, that life experience,” Butcher said.
Attorney Joe Hill took inspiration from the fact that Sotomayor reached out to the young students of the CNMI, particularly those involved in the mock trial program.
“And it was very inspiring to everyone,” Hill said.
For retired judge Herbert Soll, it is a great honor for the CNMI, a group of small islands, to have a U.S. Supreme Court justice taking the time to come out and meet the people.