Sotomayor and Education

By Mark Walsh — June 08, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Education Week’s Erik Robelen has this insightful analysis of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s record on education cases. Erik’s discussion includes the following cases:

Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education, a 1999 decision about alleged racial discrimination in the transfer of an African-American student.

Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park, about whether students must first have received public education to be eligible for private school tuition reimbursements under federal special education law.

Doninger v. Niehoff, about the First Amendment concerns surrounding a student’s Internet criticisms of her school principal. And

N.G. ex. rel. S.C. v. Connecticut, about strip-searches of adolescent girls at a juvenile detention center.

I thought I would discuss a few other education cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in which Judge Sotomayor participated or wrote the opinion.

Garcia v. Yonkers School District
In one of Judge Sotomayor’s most recent education decisions, she was part of a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit that ruled in April that students who challenged their five-day suspensions for walking out of school to join a budget protest were not prevailing parties, even though a federal district judge had sympathized with them and suggested he would grant the orders and injunction they sought.

The students had brought a First Amendment challenge to their discipline for the school walkout, and the district judge had said their rights were likely violated. But he never followed through by issuing a temporary restraining order, apparently in part because the situation had been defused.

When the students’ lawyers sought payment of attorneys’ fees as prevailing parties, the 2nd Circuit panel, joined by Judge Sotomayor, said the judge’s statements showed “ambivalence” and that the school district might have been able to prevail if the case had continued and it were able to show that harsh punishment was the norm for school walkouts.

Port Washington Teachers’ Association v. Board of Education of the Port Washington Union Free School District
In this case, Judge Sotomayor was part of a panel that unanimously turned aside a challenge by the teachers’ union and other parties to a school superintendent’s policy memorandum informing district staff members that they should inform pregnant students’ parents of the pregnancies.

The union and a district social worker argued that the memo violated the privacy rights of students and could require social workers to violated laws requiring them to maintain the confidentiality of privileged communications with students.

The 2nd Circuit panel said the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit because they didn’t suffer actual injuries under the policy memorandum, and that they didn’t face sanctions for failing to follow the policy because the district maintained that staff members would not be disciplined for failing to observe the policy.

Connecticut v. Hartford Board of Education
This opinion, written by Sotomayor, shows the judge’s tendency to write comprehensively, and drily, on the issues before her.

The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that Connecticut’s Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities had the authority under federal law to access a school for students with serious emotional disabilities after complaints of abuse and neglect, such as by the inappropriate use of restraints and seclusion of students.

The Hartford school district refused the state office access to the facility and the detailed directory information it sought about students and parents. The district argued that federal special education law and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act barred the access.

A federal district court granted the state office the access it sought. On appeal, the 2nd Circuit court invited the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services to file a brief giving their views on whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or FERPA barred the information and access to the school sought by Connecticut. The two departments said there was no such barrier under the federal laws.

In a 27-page opinion, Judge Sotomayor exhaustively discussed the various federal laws at issue and agreed that the Connecticut office of protection and advocacy should have the access it sought.

“Although OPA presumably did not receive a specific complaint about each student, it submitted evidence that it had complaints about the operation of particular policies that led to inappropriate restraint and seclusion and that those policies operated school-wide,” the judge said. “Given that these allegations are system-wide, OPA could have reason to believe that all students at the school had been, were being, or were at risk of being neglected or abused.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.