Sotomayor Tells Students Diabetes No Barrier to Aspirations

By Mark Walsh — June 21, 2011 2 min read
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Justice Sonia Sotomayor says that when she was in high school, she probably did not even realize that the U.S. Supreme Court existed, much less did she aspire to serve on it.

“I’m not sure I learned that there was a Supreme Court” until college, Sotomayor told a group of 150 young people in Washington at the Children’s Congress of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The 56-year-old justice used much of her half-hour talk before the 150 children and teenagers at a Washington hotel to describe her experiences and challenges of living with type 1 diabetes.

“You get to do anything you want,” she told the young people, who also live with type 1 diabetes. “I now have the job of my dreams. And it’s a really cool job.”

During a question-and-answer session, Stephen Wallace, of Detroit, told Sotomayor that he was in 10th grade and his goal was to become a Supreme Court justice.

“What were you doing in the 10th grade to prepare to be on the Supreme Court?” Wallace asked the justice.

Sotomayor smiled and said, “Not much.”

She explained that despite her lack of awareness about the high court, by that age she did know she wanted to be a lawyer and perhaps a trial judge. Those are two ambitions that the Bronx native achieved before also serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, and on the high court since 2009.

Sotomayor told the young people she participated in activities that proved to be helpful in her career. She joined her school’s debate team and also took part in a public speaking club, what was then widely called forensics.

“I also got involved in student government, though I never wanted to be a politician,” she said.

She noted that law schools welcomed students from a variety of backgrounds, instead of requiring a rigid, singular path of preparation.

“If you want to become a Supreme Court justice, do the things you like, and do them well,” Sotomayor said.

“Maybe someday I’ll be there when you are being sworn in” as a justice, Sotomayor told the young man who asked the question.

Sotomayor discussed being diagnosed with diabetes at age 7, when she found herself constantly thirsty and fainting in church. She once ran from doctors and hid under a car to avoid being pierced by a large needle for a diagnostic blood test, but she was soon sterilizing her own syringes in boiling water.

“I learned it takes forever to get water to boil,” she said, noting that she would make her school lunch or set out her school clothes while the water warmed up each morning. She told the young people they now have it somewhat easier with disposable syringes and insulin pumps.

She injects her insulin four to six times a day, she said.

“Before I take the bench, I check my sugars to make sure I’m not going to have a low while I listen to people argue” cases before the high court, Sotomayor said.

Asked whether there was anything about having diabetes that was a positive, Sotomayor said that it taught her discipline, whether with nutrition, her study habits in school, or in learning to salsa dance at age 50.

“I pay attention to my body,” Sotomayor said.

Alexander Oppen, from Kenosha, Wis., a 17-year-old participant in the Children’s Congress, said he found Sotomayor’s talk inspiring.

“She grew up in an era when she did not have all the resources that I have” to deal with diabetes, said Oppen, who is involved in drag racing and may become a teacher. “It’s really a bad disease, and she takes it with such a great attitude. It’s great to see that we can aspire to do anything. We’re not going to let this disease stop us from doing what we want to do.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.