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After confirmation hearings in mid-July that touched only lightly on education, Judge Sonia Sotomayor is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court in time for the term that formally opens in October, after winning approval last week by the full Senate 68-31.
Just nine Republicans joined 57 Senate Democrats and two Independents in voting to confirm Judge Sotomayor. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who has brain cancer, was not present.
President Barack Obama’s nominee was backed by some prominent civil rights and education groups, including the two national teachers’ unions.
Judge Sotomayor “understands the judiciary’s role in protecting the rights of all Americans, in ensuring equal justice, and in respecting our constitutional values—all within the confines of the law,” according to a July 27 letter co-signed by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other groups.
But many Senate Republicans challenged her impartiality and faulted how she handled some cases during her 17 years as a federal judge at the appellate and district court levels. As a judge, she has handled a relatively small number of cases dealing directly with K-12 education. (“School Rulings By Sotomayor Eyed Carefully,” June 10, 2009.)
Judge Sotomayor is generally viewed as a moderate to liberal, and replaces now-retired Justice David H. Souter, who was considered a part of the court’s liberal bloc.
During three days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Sotomayor was asked about an education ru
ing from her appellate tenure, on allegations by a black child’s family that he had been subjected to racial discrimination at an elementary school. She also touched on two 2003 Supreme Court cases concerning race-conscious admissions policies in higher education, as well as the seminal Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Republican senators focused extensively on the controversial Ricci v. DeStefano appellate ruling that she had joined—and which was reversed in June by the Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit had rejected claims of reverse discrimination involving firefighters from New Haven, Conn.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Sotomayor Wins U.S. Supreme Court Confirmation