Ruling in a case that struck a chord with families nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said that the strip search of an Arizona middle school girl in pursuit of drugs in 2003 was a violation of her Fourth Amendment right against improper search and seizure.
Eight justices mdash; all but Justice Clarence Thomas — agreed the search at a public school was excessive. But the justices divided over whether the assistant principal who ordered the search should be held liable for the constitutional violation. Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the only justices who said the law on school searches was clear enough that the school official should have known it was illegal and should be liable. The others agreed the official deserved immunity from suit.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Adam Wolf, who argued on behalf of the Redding family, said, “Today’s ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones.”
In a separate Sixth Amendment ruling issued on Thursday, a 5-4 majority ruled that forensic evidence in criminal cases must be presented by a witness who can be cross-examined — not submitted in the form of a written lab report. States and prosecutors warned the court beforehand that such a ruling would pose a costly new burden on taxpayer money, but Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, said the confrontation clause requires witness testimony “and we may not disregard it at our convenience.”
The strip-search ruling in Safford Unified School District v. Redding was announced by Justice David Souter and could be his last decision before retiring when the court adjourns for the summer next Monday.
The case received wide media attention, and was used as an illustration of the need to appoint more women to the Supreme Court. During oral argument in the case in April, Justice Stephen Breyer and other male justices seemed to make light of the search, noting that students are in various states of undress in school locker rooms. In an unusual public comment about a pending case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg later told USA Today that her male colleagues “have never been a 13-year-old girl. . . . It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”
The case involved Savana Redding, who attended a public school with a zero-tolerance policy toward possession of drugs. Acting on reports that the girl had prescription-strength ibuprofen pills, an assistant principal ordered the search to be conducted by the school nurse. The girl was told to strip to her underwear and pull out her bra and underpants to show that she was not hiding individual pills. No pills were found. Her mother sued the school district, claiming a Fourth Amendment violation, and last year in an en banc ruling the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the search was unconstitutional and the assistant principal was not immune from liability.
Souter said that under the court’s precedent on student searches in the 1985 case New Jersey v. T.L.O, the school was justified in conducting a limited search of the girl’s backpack and outer clothing. But requiring her to strip to her underwear and partly expose herself was excessive, Souter said. Such searches, Souter said, are “so degrading” that some school districts have banned them “no matter what the facts may be.” But Souter said that lower court interpretations of the T.L.O. case and others vary widely enough that the school officials who ordered the underwear search were not liable.
The court also ruled Thursday in Horne v. Flores, a dispute concerning the adequacy of programs for English language learners in an Arizona school district. The 5-4 decision granted relief to the state, finding that lower courts did not adequately take into account what the state had done for English learners. Breyer read from his dissent in the case, arguing that more help was needed.
In Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the court also divided, 5-4, in ruling that maritime law and the Jones Act allow for punitive damages for “willful and wanton disregard” for maintenance of vessels in suits brought by injured seamen.
The justices adjourned on Thursday without issuing a ruling in probably its most anticipated case of the term, Ricci v. DeStefano, involving the reverse discrimination claims of white New Haven, Conn., firefighters who were not given promotions after passing a test. The court indicated that Monday will be the final decision day of the term.
Tony Mauro is the U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for Incisive Media.