U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor led a three-judge panel Monday, Jan. 27, for the final round of the UC Irvine School of Law’s fourth annual Experian/Jones Day Moot Court Competition.

Along with federal judges Martha Daughtrey and William Fletcher, Sotomayor heard law students Anne Conley and Jennifer Steeve argue whether Illinois statutes forbidding a person to carry ready-to-use firearms in public violate the Second and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Conley and Steeve prevailed as finalists through four rounds of moot court competition that began Nov. 12. The winner of the final round was Steeve, a second-year law student.

Sotomayor praised the arguments delivered by both Conley and Steeve, declaring that the most difficult thing about being a judge is “the weight of the decision-making,” especially when two sides are so evenly matched.

“Watching these young lawyers today practice the art with such finesse is really wonderful,” she said. “In my life as a judge, I’ve seen a whole lot of attorneys who have not done as well as you. You should be equally proud of how you performed today.”

Conley, who called Sotomayor one of her legal heroes, said that arguing before such accomplished judges was an eye-opening experience. “It was very challenging and illuminated what judges are thinking,” she said. “Their questions were often very tough, but it’s always fun to be pushed to the edge of what you’re arguing.”

Steeve admitted that her “level of nervousness” was high at the beginning of the competition but said she felt more comfortable once she started speaking. “I thought the judges asked excellent questions,” she said. “I’m honored to represent UC Irvine. … It was an incredible opportunity.”

In UC Irvine’s moot court program, students write legal briefs and argue cases before appellate judges. The focus is intra-school competition, in which participants write their briefs in teams of two but argue as individuals. Students advance in rounds based on their brief and oral argument scores.

Law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky thanked his students for organizing the event and praised the distinguished panel of judges. “We could not have three finer jurists presiding over the moot court competition than those sitting here today,” he said.

In a public question-and-answer session before Monday’s moot court competition, Sotomayor chatted with Chemerinsky about her recent book, My Beloved World. It’s the story of her childhood, education and life up to 1992. Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.