Supremes’ Sotomayor encourages youth council

Don’t be afraid to try new things, justice urges students

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, next to Gov. John Hickenlooper, made a request before agreeing to help dedicate the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver on Thursday: Invite students to be part of the celebration. Enlargephoto

RJ Sangosti/Denver Post

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, next to Gov. John Hickenlooper, made a request before agreeing to help dedicate the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver on Thursday: Invite students to be part of the celebration.

DENVER – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dedicated Colorado’s new appellate courthouse Thursday – a rare personal appearance by a high-court justice made possible, in part, by the efforts of two Durango high school students and a local senator.

Sotomayor told Colorado Chief Justice Michael Bender that she would dedicate the building, but only if Colorado students were invited to share the day.

So Bender asked for help from Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who led the creation of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council. COYAC members swung into action last October, publicizing an essay contest statewide and evaluating 1,200 entries to find 100 fortunate students who were invited to Thursday’s event.

Animas High School senior Daniel Fallon-Cyr and Durango High School sophomore Logan Graham serve on the youth council and helped organize the gathering of students.

“It actually gives me a little lump in my throat,” Roberts said. “It’s all about getting the kids to think big, think beyond.”

That was Sotomayor’s message, too.

She grew up in poverty, and her alcoholic father died when she was 9. She wasn’t even aware the Supreme Court existed when she was a young teenager, and she had no lawyers in the family to set an example. But her interest in the law was sparked by watching “Perry Mason” on television.

Sotomayor said she hoped Colorado students could identify with her girlhood and think, “She’s just like me, and if she could make it, so can I.”

She said she had only one special quality that helped propel her to the highest court in the land.

“I always knew how to say, ‘I don’t know,’” she said.

After a brief talk, the justice roamed around the audience and took questions from the students for 45 minutes.

She encouraged students to try out things they don’t know about, even if they might not be successful.

The thought resonated with Graham.

“I just like the message, if you don’t want to do something, just make sure you don’t want to do it before you toss it out of your life,” Graham said.

Youth council members got to join a smaller group of about 40 to have lunch with Sotomayor, and Fallon-Cyr talked to her personally.

He said he has heard other important people speak and sometimes came away disappointed.

He thanked Sotomayor for her approach to the speech, which she began by saying students didn’t need to worry about taking any life lessons from her talk.

“Once she dropped that expectation, it was really easy to listen to her. She really connected with the audience,” Fallon-Cyr said. “It was actually one of the most inspirational talks I ever heard.”

Formally, Thursday’s main event was the dedication of the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center. The glass-domed building stands diagonally across the street from the state Capitol, and it houses the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. An adjoining office tower is the new home of the attorney general’s office and several state legal agencies.

The complex is named for former Gov. Ralph Carr, who led the state during the early years of World War II. His unpopular stance against the expulsion and internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry upset many Coloradans and probably ended his political career.

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