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A New Supreme Court Judge: Will It Affect Schools?

A New Supreme Court Judge: Will It Affect Schools?

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Updated on Aug 14, 2009

History was made this year when the Senate confirmed Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.

“It’s about time,” says Scott Swail, President and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute, headquartered in Virginia Beach. “It’s always been relatively white and male out there.”

Those who have been looking for balance in the courts are welcoming Sotomayor’s confirmation, while others are concerned that she might bring to her new position a particularly liberal judicial philosophy.

After her appointment in the spring, interest groups began looking carefully at her rulings over her 17-year career on the federal bench; those concerned with education found little, yet her rulings did lead to some discussion. Some of her more controversial education-related cases included issues of racial discrimination, learning disabilities, and freedom of expression.

Here’s an overview of her rulings on three prominent cases:

Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education

In this 1999 case, a student’s family alleged racial discrimination against a Connecticut elementary school. The first-grade student was demoted to kindergarten and the child’s family claimed that his demotion was due to racial name-calling (the child was the only black student in the class) and that the decision was made without the family’s consent. Sotomayor agreed with the other judges on the panel to dismiss the case, rejecting the claim that the school reacted with “deliberate indifference.” However, Sotomayor also said that race could have played a role in the decision to demote the student—that “a jury reasonably could conclude that the school did not give the black student an equal chance to succeed (or fail).”

Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park

In this 2006 case, Sotomayor ruled with the other panel judges that parents of a student with learning disabilities can get reimbursed for private school tuition, even if the student has never received public services from the school district for the disabilities.

Doninger v. Niehoff

Sotomayor’s ruling on this 2008 case found that a high school student’s blog remarks created a “foreseeable risk of substantial disruption” in the school and therefore the student was not granted a preliminary injunction to reverse the school’s disciplinary action against her.

Some have seen these rulings as indication that Sotomayor will lean far left in future rulings, but many educational policy experts say the evidence suggests she is a moderate when it comes to issues in education, and that there will not be any immediate and obvious consequences for schools.

 “With Sotomayor I think you’ll get a thoughtful jurist who comes from a particular background, so she’ll be sensitive to some issues,” said Jack Jennings, President and CEO of the Center on Education Policy in Washington DC. “But I certainly don’t get the impression that she will be set on making law on these issues.”

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