Native questions remain unasked
DENVER – Legal issues were explored and life lessons offered when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to about 200 area high school and college students at the University of Denver College of Law, but from some Native students’ point of view a golden opportunity to ask the hard questions was lost.
Sotomayor’s visit and her responses to students’ queries was part of a program to encourage young people from differing backgrounds to pursue careers in law, with an eye to making Colorado’s legal community “more diverse, inclusive and representative of the state and region,” DU said in a prepared release.
Students representing various ethnicities and neighborhoods heard Sotomayor acknowledge there is “no question that you have to prove more” if you are from a target group, but that the students can regard overcoming negative stereotyping as a challenge.
She responded in general terms Aug. 26 to questions about her own experiences and about such issues as immigration laws and freedom of speech in a time of national security concerns.
What she did not hear were questions that were to have been posed by at least one Native student, Reed Zephier, Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, S.D., a graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I actually believe in getting into debt for education.”
– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, addressing students in Denver
Zephier was told he was on a list of students who were scheduled to ask questions, but a non-Native student asked a question in his place. The university said he was not on a list of six students prepared in advance, but was apparently victim of a “really unfortunate” error arising from a town hall-type setting in which, although Zephier may have been called on, someone next to him mistakenly assumed he had been selected and spoke instead.
But Theresa Gutierrez, Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne, director of American Indian Student Services at UC-D, said she was told he was on a list to ask questions, and regarded it as another example of “making Native people and our issues invisible.” Neither he nor two other Native students who thought they were going to be allowed to ask questions were able to do so, even though Zephier was pre-empted, she said.
His question to the Supreme Court justice was to have centered on challenges to such discredited colonial doctrines as terra nullius, leading him to ask, “Do you think it is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the Johnson decision (Johnson v. M’Intosh, which established the Doctrine of Discovery in U.S. law) and the Doctrine of Discovery?”
Noting that a 10-year study showed “American Indians lost more cases at the Supreme Court than any other litigant group, including convicted felons” and that American Indians have lost 95 percent of cases brought to federal courts, including the Supreme Court, under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, two other Native students wanted to ask why American Indian students should hope that the study and practice of law or the First Amendment would protect Native rights.
The students, Brighton Dawn Finger, Cherokee/Western Shoshone, and Tessa McLean, Anishanaabe/Ojibwe, also had been told they could pose questions, Gutierrez said.
Although the colonialism-related questions were not asked, Sotomayor responded to questions about ethnicity and stereotyping when, asked if she had experienced racial profiling, she said, “I have a white skin tone and that’s really helpful to avoid profiling.”
The justice said what she has experienced “is an understanding of what the larger society’s expectations of me are,” citing instances when “people kept accusing me of not being smart enough.” She asked to be told, “If it’s not because I’m Hispanic, what (the reason for the accusation) could be.”
She urged students of diverse backgrounds to accept the need for them to prove themselves as a challenge rather than as a burden, and advised all the students to get the best education they could “at whatever price you have to pay,” whether it involves loans, work-study, or careful research into financial aid. “I actually believe in getting into debt for education.
“I came from a different background. It took a lot of hard work to make a life for myself in that (academic) environment.” Ultimately, it can come down to saying to oneself, “Even if I’m a little bit different, that’s okay.”
In the world of corporate law, where fellow attorneys may have relatives and friends in positions of power who are potential clients, “without corporate familiarity, it is more difficult to make inroads,” she acknowledged.
Responding to questions about current topics, she said she hasn’t formed an opinion about the immigration law in Arizona because she has not read the law in detail. About classified material being circulated on the Internet, she said she could not comment specifically because she expected the issues may come before her as part of a tension between First Amendment and national security concerns than run “throughout our history.”
Sotomayor, who is the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ designated justice on the Supreme Court, was in the area to attend the 10th Circuit Justice Conference in nearby Colorado Springs. Each of the high court justices has a circuit or circuits as an area of responsibility.
Her presentation at DU’s Sturm College of Law was attended by up to 400 legal scholars, attorneys and community members in addition to the high school and college students. The event was co-hosted by the College of Law and the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence.