Sonia Sotomayor Hearings and her Disability Cases (A Day in Washington Disability Policy Podcast)

Day in Washington Disability Policy Podcast – Episode Summary: Day in Washington looks atU.S. Supreme Court Building disability policy issues. Today’s podcast/blog post is a about Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.  On July 13th,  the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin their hearings to determine whether or not to confirm her for the position.

In the past, many disability groups have been cautious about supporting or opposing judicial nominees because it can be a very political and partisan affair. However, considering that courts have the power to interpret laws, and considering the very recent passage of the ADA Amendments Act which was developed specifically to address the problem of courts too narrowly interpreting the ADA, perhaps taking a closer look at the nomination of judges is relevant to all people with disabilities. This episode of Day in Washington will examine Judge Sonia Sotomayor from a disability perspective and look at some of her decisions on disability cases. 

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Full Text File:  See Comments

Resources:

Bazelon Center’s Review of Judge Sotomayor’s Decisions Involving Disability Rights

Letter from 28 National Disability Groups to the Senate Judiciary Committee in Support of Sotomayor – July 7, 2009

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law’s Action Alert: Five Reason’s to Support Sotomayor’s Confirmation

– Supreme Court Photo by Andrew.Deci

– Sotomayor Poster (Edited) by Favianna Rodriguez

 Sonia Sotomayor Poster by Favianna Rodriguez

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1 comment for “Sonia Sotomayor Hearings and her Disability Cases (A Day in Washington Disability Policy Podcast)

  1. July 10, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Sonia Sotomayor Hearing and her Disability Cases (A Day in Washington Disabilit Policy Podcast)

    Introduction

    Hello and welcome to Day In Washington. Day in Washington is a nationally syndicated disability policy blog/podcast. Updated weekly, these 6 minute podcasts offer an easy to understand introduction to disability policy and politics. I’m your host, Day Al-Mohamed working to make sure you stay informed.

    Episode

    Last month, Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, announced that the Senate confirmation hearings will begin for Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee on July 13th.

    Over the last few weeks several disability groups discussed their thoughts on judicial nominees and also met with the Administration to talk about nominees who would appropriately represent diversity (including disability). Yesterday, 28 national disability organizations sent a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Sotomayor.

    In the past, many disability groups have been cautious about supporting or opposing judicial nominees at any level. It can sometimes be a very political and partisan affair, and historically, the prevailing opinion has been to focus on legislation and policy changes. However, considering that courts have the power to interpret laws, and considering the very recent passage of the ADA Amendments Act which was developed specifically to address the problem of courts too narrowly interpreting the ADA, perhaps taking a closer look at the nomination of judges is relevant to all people with disabilities.

    The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law has done a wonderful review which goes into great detail of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s disability law cases. However, at 18 pages, the reading is a bit dense so let me summarize some of the issues that may be of interest to Day in Washington listeners/readers.

    Generally, Judge Sotomayor has taken strong positions protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. She often made inquiries into the nature of plaintiffs’ impairments and into whether lower court were investigating deeply enough – apparently she was motivated by a genuine desire to accurately determine whether a plaintiff is protected by the law. She has not been afraid to dissent, or to argue that a person with a disability was not treated fairly. Over and over it would seem that her decisions show a careful weighing of the evidence to determine whether a plaintiff was qualified to perform the essential functions of a job.

    In one of the cases she authored a decision reversing a jury verdict against the plaintiff so that if a person with a disability asks to be reassigned to a different vacant position as a reasonable accommodation, the company offering of an inferior position is not reasonable or appropriate when a comparable position is available.

    Judge Sotomayor seems just as emphatic in her dissents. In one particularly notable dissent, she argued forcefully that the appointment of a guardian ad litem violated the constitutional rights of a woman who had received psychiatric treatments, because she was not properly notified that she would have no control over her case once the guardian was appointed.

    I find Judge Sotomayor’s decisions in the education arena of particular interest. She acknowledges that when families and schools disagree about what services are appropriate, a student’s success in school hangs in the balance and, as a result, such disagreements should be resolved as soon as possible.

    In one case, Frank G. v. Board of Educ. Of Hyde Park, 459 F.3d 356 (2d Cir. 2006). Judge Sotomayor held that parents can place their child in an alternative setting and get reimbursed for the cost of appropriate services if the public school fails to provide them – even though they did not first try the placement offered by the public school district. Her reasoning was that the schools were making the erroneous assumption that parents would have to keep their child in a public school placement until it was clear that the placement wasn’t working…basically a wasted year of actual failure. For a child, that can have significant long-term impact. She said, “Such a ‘first bite’ at failure is not required by the IDEA.”

    However, no judicial nominee is going to be perfect. So, to be upfront and fair, lets look at cases that raise concerns:

    In the relatively well-known Bartlett case, a woman with learning disabilities was denied accommodations in taking the bar exam. Judge Sotomayor first found that the plaintiff was not substantially limited in the major life activity of reading because of “self-accommodation” strategies she employed. To be fair, after the case was reversed, Sotomayor did reconsider. Her reasoning was that the legal landscape had changed and on remand, she wrote that the plaintiff “struggled through three laborious years of law school—at no small fiscal or psychic cost. To tell her now that she is free to go and practice another profession, or to return to her prior field … would not be consistent with the remedial goals that Congress intended in passing the ADA.”

    One other concern is a statement Judge Sotomayor made in a case involving an employee with a psychiatric disability who was fired apparently after violating a workplace conduct rule. In her decision granting summary judgment to the employer, she wrote that “whether [the employee’s] misconduct was a manifestation of his disability is immaterial because the ADA does not immunize disabled employees from discipline or discharge for incidents of misconduct in the workplace.” Judge Sotomayor’s comment actually appears to be unnecessary to her holding in the case…so why say it at all?

    That is examining her judicial decisions, what about Sonia Sotomayor as an individual? A comment that has caught my attention is that she often said that she hoped her experiences would help her reach better judicial conclusions than someone without such a varied background might reach, specifically: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion.” That sentence, or a similar one, has appeared in speeches Sotomayor delivered in 1994, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2005.

    As has been said many times over the last few weeks in the news, if confirmed, she will be the first Hispanic and third woman on the bench. She would also be the first Supreme Court Justice who is open about her disability…insulin-treated diabetes. I find myself in support of a potential Justice who openly embraces diversity, while at the same time maintaining a fair and balanced approach to the law with an interest in and understanding of the impact of those legal decisions on the lives of all individuals, including people with disabilities.

    So what is the final verdict? As always, I urge Day in Washington readers/listeners to examine issues for themselves and come to their own decision.

    Closing

    And that’s it for this week’s Day in Washington. I’m Day Al-Mohamed with your Disability Policy Podcast, hoping that you stay well and stay informed. For more information about disability policy or to comment please visit: DayInWashington.com or call 206-888-6009.

    Epilogue

    Music for this podcast was provided by the podsafe music network. The music was composed and performed by 2012 and can be found at http://www.twentytwelverecords.com.
    Any opinions and perspectives expressed in this podcast should not be taken as the official stance of any group or organization affiliated with the host. In addition, none of the facts, data, or grammar have been checked for accuracy.
    Thank you for listening.

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