Sonia Sotomayor—President Obama's pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter—has not yet been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but her history of education decisions is already drawing close attention from education law experts as they consider the direction she might take on schools if confirmed, Education Week reports.
She has handled only a small number of K-12 education cases during her 17 years on the federal bench, but the trials—which have focused on such key issues as special education, racial discrimination, and student freedom of expression—could offer clues on future school policy matters if she joins the court.
Here is a breakdown of how she ruled on three of her most prominent cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit:
Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education (1999)
Though she agreed with the majority decision of the three-judge panel to dismiss, Sotomayor dissented in part from the majority decision on this case, in which a student alleged racial discrimination against a Connecticut elementary school. The student's family claimed that their son, the only black student in his first-grade class, was subjected to racial name-calling by other children and that he was transferred to a kindergarten class to allay the racial tension without the family's consent. Sotomayor agreed with the panel's rejection of the claim that the school reacted with "deliberate indifference" to the alleged racial hostility, but she also argued that the student's race stood out as the "likely reason" for his demotion from first grade to kindergarten. Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park (2006)
In a special education case that resembles one now awaiting final action by the Supreme Court, Sotomayor joined a unanimous ruling that found that a family could be reimbursed for private school tuition for a child with learning disabilities even if the child never received such services from the public district. Doninger v. Niehoff (2008)
First Amendment advocates were dismayed when Sotomayor signed on to this decision, which found that a Connecticut student's off-campus blog remarks, described in the ruling as "vulgar," had created a "foreseeable risk of substantial disruption" at the student's high school. The panel did not grant the teenager a preliminary injunction to reverse the school's disciplinary action against her. Of the 3,000 cases that have come before Judge Sotomayor as an appeals court judge, just over three dozen have been on schools, but some education law experts say the available evidence suggests that she's a moderate on education issues. At the same time, conservative groups are blasting the Princeton University and Yale Law School grad as being a left-leaning activist seeking to use personal viewpoints to create legislation. Others describe her track record as a middle-of-the-road application of legal principles.
"She's very representative of the mainstream of prevailing judicial outcomes in K-12 education," said Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University, in an interview with Education Week . At least in school cases, he says, the judge appears to exhibit moderation rather than radicalism.
Statistically, her record could even support the argument that she's conservative on education issues. An analysis conducted by Zirkel found that of 26 decisions on "regular education," Judge Sotomayor ruled in favor of school districts 83 percent of the time. She ruled in favor of districts 58 percent of the time on her 13 special-education cases.