Here’s the promised discussion of the Savana Redding case:
This decision makes me happy! It’s a victory for the constitutional rights of public school students.
It also really surprises me, for two reasons:
1. From reading the transcript of the oral argument, it really sounded like the Justices — all of them except maybe Justice Ginsburg — were getting carried away in the fear of a youth drug problem, so much so that they were leaning in the direction of that danger outweighing the constitutional rights of students. Now, I agree that it’s a serious problem, to be taken seriously, but I was really worried that they were being cowed by it. They didn’t seem much to care that what they were looking for was Advil, not… meth, or Vicodin, or acid, or marijuana, or… but the important distinction madeit into Justice Souter’s opinion (“He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for”) (Nurse, any health care contributions on that topic? How better to control that problem? Its serious health risks?)
2. I found it likely that they would, as they seem to so love doing, rule as narrowly as possible. (i.e. say that the school officials did have qualified immunity, and then decline to rule on the constitutionality of the search.) They ruled on both! (Although they didn’t agree as fully on who should or shouldn’t be granted qualified immunity.)
What they ended up deciding (the majority, anyway — Justices Stevens and Ginsburg took issue with this part) was that the various opinions that have been issued by various courts on this topic were different enough, with enough good reasoning, that it wasn’t clear to the officials conducting the search that their actions were illegal. What they didn’t decide — they’ll let the 9th Circuit do it, which they haven’t, yet – is whether the DISTRICT itself is liable.
I’m gonna go ahead and agree with Justice Stevens here. As he once wrote, “it does not take a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude.” The precedent here, referenced again and again, was a 1985 case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., that established that whole bit about the search being “justified at its inception” and “permissible in its scope” — other lack of clarity aside, these two pieces are clear and long-standing, and the officials clearly failed to meet the standards. If they wanted to institute a policy allowing such searches (which I think they’d have to do — they aren’t just inherently allowed) they should’ve had a heart-to-heart with a lawyer first. Let’s not get so hung up on technicalities that we ignore the obviousness of the wrongdoing here. It was obvious to most of us — should’ve been obvious to the school officials, too.
A few questions remain for me. One of the standards is that the search be “not excesively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student…” — so I’m curious about the relevence of the sex of the student. Are female students more protected than male students? If so, why? (Oooh, RIP the ERA.) Or is the point that the searching officials must be of the same gender? Nurse, is there any health justification you could throw out, even as devil’s advocate, for this kind of distinction?
ps. You may be wondering — I was — what Justice Thomas was thinking in dissenting on the constitutional issue. In a nutshell, he says that the court shouldn’ interfere in the administration of public schools (meaning that they shouldn’t enforce constitutional rights in a school context?!?) He goes on. But you get the idea.