The Supreme Court is neither hot nor bothered by strip searches.
Adam Wolf, the ACLU lawyer who represents Redding, explains that "the Fourth Amendment does not countenance the rummaging on or around a 13-year-old girl's naked body." Wolf explains that he is arguing for a "two-step framework," wherein schools can use a lower standard to search "backpacks, pencil cases, bookbags" but a higher standard when you "require a 13-year-old girl to take off her pants, her shirt, move around her bra so she reveals her breasts, and the same thing with her underpants to reveal her pelvic area." This leads Justice Stephen Breyer to query whether this is all that different from asking Redding to "change into a swimming suit or your gym clothes," because, "why is this a major thing to say strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym?"
This leads Ginsburg to sputter—in what I have come to think of as her Lilly Ledbetter voice—"what was done in the case … it wasn't just that they were stripped to their underwear! They were asked to shake their bra out, to stretch the top of their pants and shake that out!" Nobody but Ginsburg seems to comprehend that the only locker rooms in which teenage girls strut around, bored but fabulous in their underwear, are to be found in porno movies. For the rest of us, the middle-school locker room was a place for hastily removing our bras without taking off our T-shirts.
But Breyer just isn't letting go. "In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear."
Shocked silence, followed by explosive laughter. In fact, I have never seen Justice Clarence Thomas laugh harder. Breyer tries to recover: "Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever. I was the one who did it? I don't know. I mean, I don't think it's beyond human experience."
It gets weirder. Wolf claims school administrators should have known better than to suspect that "Savana was currently concealing ibuprofen pills underneath her underpants for other's oral consumption," noting "a certain ick factor to this." The Chief Justice quickly replies that the ick factor doesn't attach when you are talking about "the brassiere as well, which doesn't seem as outlandish as the underpants, right?"
Oh, ick indeed. The search for a bright line rule about the expectations of student privacy has turned into a fight between a bunch of guys who still say "brassiere."
By now, even Justice David Souter has ditched Wolf, musing that if he were the principal in a school, he "would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search … than have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry."
On the courthouse steps after argument today, Redding is asked what she'd have wanted the school to do differently. "Call my mom first," she says. You see, we now have school districts all around the country finding naked photos of teens and immediately calling in the police for possession of kiddie porn. Yet schools see nothing wrong with stripping these same kids naked to search for drugs. Evidently teenage nakedness is only a problem when the children choose to be naked. And the parents? They are always the last to know.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Cartoon by Karen Kuhn/Austin Community College. Photograph of Savan Redding on Slate's home page by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.