Sotomayor agrees to receive Dunnellon students

Published: Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 3:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 3:19 p.m.

“Dear Madam Justice,” the three-paragraph letter began. “My name is John Quiñones and I am an educator of ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) students at Dunnellon High School in Dunnellon, Florida.”

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, left, and Sonia Sotomayor, center, are seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address .

The Associated Press

The Oct. 13 letter, addressed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, celebrated the nomination and confirmation of the first Hispanic justice and third female to the nation's high court.

It also asked a question: Might the justice answer some questions from a small group of government students traveling to Washington, D.C. so they could learn about her experiences and journey to the bench?

“These students are all immigrants themselves and have high aspirations for their futures and their families in America,” the teacher wrote. “As their 12th grade US Government teacher, the opportunity for them to meet you would be inspiring as well as educational.”

To the delight of Quiñones, a 20-year-veteran of the public schools who teaches social studies and math at Dunnellon, the justice's assistant responded less than a month later. Sotomayor had agreed to meet with the kids. Not only that, she could arrange for a tour of the Supreme Court.

“I was elated, a little surprised as well as overjoyed, because I knew our odds were 50-50,” said the teacher.

The six Dunnellon High seniors will travel to D.C. for one week in April, accompanied by Quiñones, fellow ESOL teacher Janice Latham-Smith, and four parent chaperones. They will chat with Sotomayor on April 15 during a closed-door meeting.

The students, most of whom have resided in the United States only several years and will be heading to college in the fall, are originally from such places as Guatemala, Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico.

Sotomayor, 55, was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent herself. She started her career as a prosecutor in New York City, then entered private practice, before being appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She was later nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before being tapped by President Obama in May 2009 to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy caused by the retirement of Justice David Souter.

She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate three months later by a vote of 68-31.

A recent interview with the students in their brightly decorated classroom revealed a mix of excitement, with a slight jumble of nerves, in anticipation of the trip.

Asked what she will inquire of the justice, Joselyn Quiñones — no relation to her teacher — responded, “How she got there [to the Supreme Court].”

“I'd like to know who her mentor was,” added the 19-year-old senior.

Chimed in Bianca Saqui, 17, senior class president: “Being Hispanic, we all feel pride in her being appointed.”

The anticipation spills over to the students' instructor, as well. As a Bronx native and of Puerto Rican descent himself, Quiñones, 47, is eight years Sotomayor's junior, but finds her story — of having grown up in the South Bronx public housing project and using education and a love of books to reach Princeton University, then eventually Yale Law — incredibly compelling.

“Her story was an inspiration to me,” he said, adding the idea of the trip was to bring students new to this country a “hands-on civics lesson.”

“The story of Sonia Sotomayor, of an immigrant family that is able to rise through education and hard work to succeed in politics, to know they also have a chance to do likewise if they're dedicated to learning English and studying hard,” is the lesson he hopes the students will carry back with them.

“The American dream is still alive for the immigrant family,” Quiñones said.

The students' visit will fall in the period between the court's scheduled oral arguments.

Also on the group's itinerary during their week in D.C. are visits to Washington landmarks like the Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR memorials, the Library of Congress, the White House and the Smithsonian museums.

Between now and April, the students will hold fundraisers like car washes and canned food drives to help fund their trip.

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