As the Senate determines whether Judge Sotomayor will become Justice Sotomayor, one issue that is likely to receive very little attention is her views on interpreting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), a statute which provides various rights to students in public schools who have disabilities as well as to their parents. While there is always a risk in trying to guess what a judge will do when he or she becomes a justice and often times the facts of a particular case drive the result of their decisions, it appears, based on the limited information available, that a Justice Sotomayor would be a friend to school districts in this area. A few examples are helpful.


First, in the area of attorney’s fees, Judge Sotomayor has taken a strict interpretation of the portion of the statute which allows parents, when they are successful at a hearing to determine what special educations services are appropriate for a student, to obtain payment for counsel fees by the school district. In several opinions, Judge Sotomayor has taken the view that parents are only entitled to obtain attorney’s fees when that right is clearly established under the statute and refused to allow attorney’s fees in cases where the right was questionable or non-existent under the statute. Such a view is clearly one that is friendly to school districts and in many respects encourages parents and their counsel to be more reasonable in their efforts to resolve such cases prior to hearing.


Second, in reviewing the decisions of hearing officers and lower courts, in several cases she has deferred to state level hearing officers who have found in favor of school districts, especially in the area of tuition reimbursement. Judge Sotomayor has joined in several opinions that, when appropriate, overturn decisions of district court judges who have attempted to substitute their own opinion for that of the state level hearing officer to award parents tuition reimbursement. Such a role of ensuring that state level hearing officers decisions on the complex decision of tuition reimbursement, which many times results in the denial of the same to parents, is view that is helpful to school districts by limiting liability for tuition reimbursement only to those cases where it is clearly appropriate.


Finally, in the area of applying the statue of limitations under the IDEA, an issue which many courts have struggled to find a consensus, Judge Sotomayor has joined in at least one opinion that takes the stricter view on the statute of limitations finding that two years means two years. While other courts have found ways to try to expand the statute of limitations, a view that leaves open the possibility of more liability to school district, Judge Sotomayor joined in an opinion that would appear to limit potential liability to district.


Thus, although it is possible that a Justice Sotomayor would take a different view on cases as a Justice of the Supreme Court, based upon her record as an Appeal Court Judge, she may be a Justice that schools districts find to be district friendly in the area of special education. 


This blog posting appeared in The Legal Intelligencer on Monday, July 20, 2009.