The justices heard argument in the case of Savanna Redding, who was an eighth-grade honor student in late summer 2003 in the small community of Safford, Ariz. Despite having no history of disciplinary problems, the girl was forced to strip down to her bra and panties while school officials looked for an aspirin substitute, ibuprofen. Another girl had been found with the drug, and had blamed Redding for giving it to her.
Redding was also forced to pull her bra and panties away from her skin, shaking them to show they contained no pills, but exposing her breasts and pubic area, a federal appeals court said.
The federal appeals court later ruled that the search was unconstitutional, and school officials had no immunity from a lawsuit filed on behalf of the girl.
But in argument Tuesday, even traditionally liberal Supreme Court justices appeared ready to concede that the threat of drugs outweighed the threat of embarrassment, SCOTUSblog.com reported.
Though the Obama administration lawyer and a civil liberties attorney argued that strip-searches should be strictly limited, even liberal Justice David Souter suggested Redding's ordeal was acceptable under the Fourth Amendment, which bans "unreasonable searches."
Souter said from the bench, "If the school official's thought process was 'I'd rather have a kid embarrassed rather than some other kid dead,' isn't that reasonable under the Fourth Amendment?"
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer and the key swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, also appeared ready to consider the search reasonable, the Web site said.
The Supreme Court should rule in the case before its summer recess.
(Safford United School District vs. Redding, No. 08-479)