Law & Courts

From the Confirmation Hearings

August 06, 2009 4 min read

Last month’s confirmation hearings gave then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and her questioners a chance to address issues affecting schools and education. Among the highlights:

On Racial Issues and Discrimination

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas: “Do you agree with Chief Justice John Roberts when he says [in the majority opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District that] the best way to stop discriminating based on race is to stop discriminating based on race?”

Read the main story on Sotomayor’s confirmation.

Sotomayor: “The best way to live in our society is to follow the command of the Constitution, provide equal opportunity for all. ... And I follow what the Constitution says, that is, how the law should be structured and how it should be applied to whatever individual circumstances come before the court.”

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.: “Do you believe that affirmative action is a necessary part of our society today? Do you agree with [former] Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor [who said] that she expects in 25 years the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to promote diversity?”

Sotomayor: “The Constitution promotes and requires the equal protection of law of all citizens in its 14th Amendment. To ensure that protection, there are situations in which race in some form must be considered; the courts have recognized that. Equality requires effort, and so there are some situations in which some form of race has been recognized by the court. It is firmly my hope ... that in 25 years race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation. That’s the hope. And we’ve taken such great strides in our society to achieve that hope. But there are situations in which there are compelling state interests, and, the [higher education] admissions case that Justice O’Connor was looking at, the court recognized that in the education field.”

Sen. Kohl: “You’ve told us that you will follow the law and follow precedent, and you’ve made a very big point of this, and that’s all well and good. But some of the court’s most important ... landmark rulings overruled long-standing precedent, like Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation. ... So tell us how you will decide when it is appropriate to alter, amend, or even overrule precedent.”

Sotomayor: “Brown v. Board of Education has often been described as a radical change by some, and the public perceives it as a radical change. When you actually look at its history, you realize that there had been jurisprudence for over 20 years by the court, striking down certain—certain schemes that provided ‘separate but equal’ but in fact didn’t achieve their stated goal. And so there was underpinnings in Brown v. Board of Education that—in those precedents that came before Brown that obviously gave the court some cause, some reason to rethink this issue of ‘separate but equal.’ ”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.: “I think about the Gant [v. Wallingford Board of Education] case that you ruled in, a 6-year-old black child who was removed from school and was treated rather harshly. ... And in your dissent, you stated that treatment this ‘lone black child’ encountered ... [was] unprecedented and contrary to the school’s established policy. Justice Blackmun spoke: In order to get beyond race, we first must take race in, account for race. And if you ignore race completely, aren’t you ignoring facts that are important in a particular case?”

Sotomayor: “Well, it depends on the context of the case that you’re looking at. In the Gant case, for example, there were a variety of different challenges brought by the plaintiff to the conduct that was alleged the school had engaged in. I joined the majority in dismissing some of the claims as not consistent with law. But in that case, there was a disparate treatment element, and I pointed out to [sic] the set of facts that showed or presented evidence of that disparate treatment. That’s the quote that you were reading from, that this was a sole child who was treated completely different than other children of a different race in the services that he was provided with and in the opportunities he was given to remedy or to receive remedial help.”

On the Importance of Education

Sotomayor: “On her own, my mother raised my brother and me. She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education. And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so she could become a registered nurse.”

Sotomayor: “By the time a criminal defendant ends up in court, they’ve been shaped by their lives. ... The success of communities depends on us improving the quality of our education of children and of parental participation in ensuring that happens in our society. ... We cannot remedy the ills of society in a courtroom. We can only apply the law to the facts before us.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as From the Confirmation Hearings


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