When you learn a precedent-setting Supreme Court case happened in your hometown

The Supreme Court took on a case in 1977 concerning a lawsuit filed by a former Trumbull school district guidance counselor. (Mitchell Shapiro/Flickr, Creative Commons)

As many college students have found themselves, usually late on a Sunday night and into an early Monday morning, I was hastily finishing a study outline for an exam the upcoming day. Around 1 a.m., my attention to detail was beginning to decline; the class was one of my favorites, (unsurprisingly) called Women and the Law, yet I had to miss a few classes and my second-semester senior self had neglected to get notes from any of my peers. I was on Week 12 of the syllabus, Title IX in the Supreme Court, when I searched the case North Haven Board of Education v. Bell on the website Oyez – a well-known, Sparknotes-esque favorite for students familiar in the subject area.

The stated legal question of the case is interesting in itself: “Is Title IX’s prohibition on gender discrimination in schools intended to cover the employees of schools?” This was the first time the Supreme Court was deciding whether the educational amendment prohibiting gender discrimination in schools extended beyond its students, and if it protected educational employees as well. Employees had alleged their school districts were guilty of gender discrimination against them, and that it was a violation of Title IX. The Supreme Court indeed ruled that the legislative history and amendment’s wording, which said “no person” instead of explicitly “student” meant that it did.

When I looked up on the web page to learn more about the case’s background and the plaintiff, I had to triple-check with my tired eyes: one of the two employees who brought the suit all the way up the Supreme Court was from my hometown of Trumbull, Connecticut (the other not too far away from North Haven).

My first reaction was to be very proud. Although Trumbull was accused of gender discrimination, I was proud to come from the same town of under 40,000 people as the plaintiff, who brought this case all the way to the Supreme Court from the 06611 zip code, and eventually went on to win and extend legal protections against gender discrimination. Her name was Linda Potz. In my eyes, she was the definition of a true hometown hero, and I went on to learn all I could about her. Sadly, there was not too much about her specifically as an individual: I read in an excerpt of “Supreme Court Cases on Gender and Sexual Equality, 1787-2001” on Google Books that, “In October 1977, HEW began investigating a complaint filed by respondent Linda Potz, a former guidance counselor in the Trumbull school district. Potz alleged that Trumbull had discriminated against her on the basis of gender with respect to job assignments, working conditions and the failure to renew her contract. In September 1978, HEW notified Trumbull that it had violated Title IX and warned that corrective action, including respondent’s reinstatement, must be taken.”

 

I don’t know whether when Ms. Potz filed this complaint with HEW, she expected that Trumbull’s reaction wouldn’t just be to argue the merits of her claim separately with the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations but also to argue in United States District Court that Title IX did not extend to protect against this form of discrimination, and that this statutory question raised would go all the way to the Supreme Court – but I doubt it. I doubt she would expect myself and thousands of other students to learn about it roughly 40 years after she first filed the claim in classes and gender discrimination textbooks. Yet I really don’t know, because during my preliminary Google-ing I have been unable to find any surviving family members, but most critically because I have never learned about her before now.  

This is nothing against my absolutely wonderful history and social studies teachers I have been so fortunate to have in the Trumbull School District; I am sure they will find this very interesting and be happy to hear about it as much as I was. How were they, or anyone, supposed to know about this – unless they happened to stumble upon it studying for a Women and the Law exam late at night? This seems to have been a special Trumbull factoid (in my opinion, on the level that we are also home to New York Rangers player and Colony Pizza CEO Chris Drury) that over time has just been thrown a bit under the rug, and sadly forgotten.

I wanted to write this column because I think this story is worth re-surfacing and sharing, and one that more people should know about. Not only is it because I care, as I know many others do about preventing civil rights and employment discrimination, and I believe it would be cool and honorable to recognize Ms. Potz for her contribution, but I also think this story is about so much more. It’s these stories that help history come to life, and makes me wonder what other local, everyday heroes there are to learn about, in Trumbull, Connecticut, and across the country.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets@marissapiccolo.