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Opening Arguments

Search stripped

Common sense breaks out at the Supreme Court:

Arizona school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her on the suspicion she might be hiding ibuprofen in her underwear, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The decision put school districts on notice that such searches are "categorically distinct" from other efforts to combat illegal drugs.

In a case that had drawn attention from educators, parents and civil libertarians across the country, the court ruled 8 to 1 that such an intrusive search without the threat of a clear danger to other students violated the Constitution's protections against unreasonable search or seizure.

Justice David H. Souter, writing perhaps his final opinion for the court, said that in the search of Savana Redding, now a 19-year-old college student, school officials overreacted to vague accusations that Redding was violating school policy by possessing the ibuprofen, equivalent to two tablets of Advil.

Souter said it would be reasonable to search the girl's backpack and outer clothes, but it was a "quantum leap" to take the next step. Such "quantum leaps" have become commonplace in the era of zero tolerance. No distinction is made between vague reports of a student having Ibuprofen and reliable reports of one having cocaine, or between a student having a real gun or drawing one on paper, or a student having a hunting knife on his person or a table knife in the trunk of its car, or . . . pick your overreaction. The lone dissenter in the 8-1 decision was Clarence Thomas, who said the student would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments, "Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school." That sounds like he's deciding based on a real-world consequence instead of what the law and Constitution require, something an originalist isn't supposed to do.

And on the empathy front, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has complained that her male colleagues' comments at the time of oral argument made it sound like they didn't appreciate the trauma such a search would have on a developing adolescent. "They have never been a 13-year-old girl," she told USA Today. "It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood." But, as the Washington Post story notes, the opinion recognized just that. "Changing for gym is getting ready for play," Souter wrote. "Exposing for a search is responding to an accusation reserved for suspected wrongdoers" and is so degrading that a number of states and school districts have banned strip searches.