Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: The Supreme Court Nominee's Record on Disabilities


Yesterday President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. I'll let others debate her qualifications and her historic relevance as the first Hispanic nominee to the Court. Instead, I'll highlight her experience related to disability policy and special education.

Initial reaction from disability advocates appears to be positive. Andrew J. Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said: "Based on our preliminary analysis of Judge Sotomayor’s extensive record on the bench, we are encouraged that she may be the champion we have been looking for. Her jurisprudence in the disability area shows that she has a good understanding of the real life implications of her decisions and sees the important connections between disability rights laws and other civil rights laws."

Among her cases as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sotomayor ruled on issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Social Security, and Medicaid. In its analysis of these and other issues, Eduwonk.com concludes: "Judge Sotomayer seems inclined to favor student rights...and seems to in general be sympathetic to individuals over the system. And disability advocates will also likely have another friend on the high court if she is confirmed."

In Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park, she was part of a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel stating that parents can get reimbursed for private school tuition for a child with disabilities even if the child has never received services from their home school district.

Sotomayor ruled favorably at least one ADA case, Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners. In the case, a woman with significant learning disabilities (diagnosed as an adult) sought accommodations to take the New York State Bar examination. Sotomayor ruled in favor of these accommodations. In fact, her decision was mentioned during the debate on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Here's an excerpt from the Congressional Record from Sept. 17, 2008:

"Mr. STARK: Specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are neurologically based impairments that substantially limit the way these individuals perform major life activities, like reading or learning, or the time it takes to perform such activities often referred to as the condition, manner, or duration. This legislation will reestablish coverage for these individuals by ensuring that the definition of this ability is broadly construed and the determination does not consider the use of mitigating measures.

"Given this, would the chairman agree that these amendments support the finding in Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners in which the court held that in determining whether the plaintiff was substantially limited with respect to reading, Bartlett's ability to 'self-accommodate' should not be taken into consideration when determining whether she was protected by the ADA?

"Mr. GEORGE MILLER of California: Yes, I would. As we stated in the committee report on H.R. 3195, the committee supports the finding in Bartlett. Our report explains that 'an individual with an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity should not be penalized when seeking protection under the ADA simply because he or she managed their own adaptive strategies or received informal or undocumented accommodations that have the effect of lessening the deleterious impacts of their disability.'

"Mr. STARK: I want to thank the chairman. It is indeed our full intention to ensure that the civil rights law retains its focus on protecting individuals with disabilities and not the interests of entities that may need to address their practices in accordance with the ADA. I look forward to working with the chairman to continue to protect individuals with specific learning disabilities to ensure that unnecessary barriers are not being erected in their path."

Read excerpt (page 6).

Also, as Time magazine reports, Judge Sotomayor would become the first Supreme Court Justice with Type 1 diabetes, a condition that was diagnosed when she was 8.

What are your thoughts on Sotomayor's qualifications and potential impact on disability law?
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