WASHINGTON – The strip search of a 13 year old middle school girl suspected of hiding illicit drugs was ruled unconstitutional by a nearly unanimous Supreme Court on Thursday.
It was one of four opinions the justices announced but they did issue a ruling in a highly anticipated reverse discrimination case that's at the center of the upcoming confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor which is now likely to come Monday.
Thursday's other significant opinions included a second school case from Arizona that examined the state's funding of its English Learner Language program and a decision that gives criminal defendants the right to call to the witness stand lab technicians who perform scientific tests on forensic evidence. Both of these cases were 5-4 decisions.
In the strip search case, a student told school officials in Safford, Arizona that her friend, Savana Redding, possessed prescription strength ibuprofen in violation of school rules. The assistant principal ordered a female nurse to effectively conduct a strip search of Redding which revealed that she did not possess the drugs.
The 8-1 decision was authored by retiring Justice David Souter who said while there was reasonable evidence to suspect that Redding may have possessed the pills, that evidence didn't rise to a level necessary to conduct such an invasive search which Redding described as embarrassing, frightening and humiliating. "Here, the content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion," Souter wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member of the court to contend the search was lawful. In his dissent, Thomas said the majority's opinion "grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge."
The other Arizona school case focused on that state's funding of its English Learner Language program for non-native English speakers. The 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito overturns a lower court ruling that efforts by the state to improve the quality of education and amount of money spent on programs for non-native English speakers was insufficient.
Alito effectively scolded the lower courts for its refusal to recognize the improvements Arizona has made since it was first ruled to be deficient. Alito said Arizona's compliance with the more recent federal No Child Left Behind program is a sign of significant progress that was not sufficiently considered.
Thursday's opinion remands the case for further review to see if Arizona's progress is enough to escape a federal judge's oversight. In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower courts did take the state's recent progress into consideration and ruled fairly. He says the majority's decision places the education of some of Arizona's schoolchildren at risk.
In another 5-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia expanded upon one of his hallmark rulings about the Sixth Amendment rights of criminal defendants to confront all witnesses presented against them at trial.
This case from Massachusetts involves an alleged drug dealer who at trial was presented with a lab report detailing that the drug found on him was cocaine. But the Court ruled that the defendant, Luis Melendez-Diaz, has a constitutional right to call to the witness stand the technician who prepared the lab report.
The decision could lead to an increase of subpoenas for lab technicians to testify about their methodology and conclusions. These appearances could lead to lengthier trials and the absences from their labs could also lead to delays finishing pending lab work. Issues that even Scalia acknowledges may be burdensome but he says the Confrontation Clause "is binding, and we may not disregard it at our convenience."
Justice Anthony Kennedy's dissent says the opinion "confidently disregards a century of jurisprudence" in which scientific analysis could be presented at trial without the need for calling the analyst who produced the work. Kennedy says "laboratory analysts who conduct routine scientific tests are not the kind of conventional witnesses to whom the Confrontation Clause refers."
The justices return to the Court on Monday for what should be their final day of the term. They have three outstanding opinions including the New Haven, Conn. firefighters reverse discrimination case that has drawn increased interest because of Sotomayor’s 2008 ruling that the city was right to set aside the results of promotions exams in which no African-Americans scored well enough to merit promotion.