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Senators on the Strip-Search Case in the Supreme Court

The recent Supreme Court case involving the strip-search of a middle school student by school officials looking for drugs is getting some attention at Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing this afternoon.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Judiciary Committee member and the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, told Sotomayor that at oral argument this spring in the case of Safford Unified School District v. Redding, “several justices asked questions that revealed a stunning lack of empathy” for the student at the center of the case.

One justice even suggested that a strip-search was no more intrusive into students’ privacy interests than when they have to change clothes for gym class, Sen. Durbin noted. He was referring to comments during the argument by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a Clinton appointee to the high court. ("I'm trying to work out why this is a major thing," Justice Breyer said.) (My blog post here.)

Indeed, at oral argument, the justices did appear to sympathize more with school administrators than with student Savanna Redding. But when the decision came down in June, the court voted 8-1 that the strip-search in the case violated the Fourth Amendment and that such searches were legal only when administrators had specific reason to believe that a student was hiding contraband in his clothes.

Although she didn’t write the majority opinion in the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke up at oral argument for the privacy interests of teenage girls, as well as afterward in an interview with USA Today in which Ginsburg suggested her male colleagues just didn’t get it.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., today cited Justice Ginsburg’s public comments surrounding the strip-search case in telling Sotomayor that “being a justice for all of us may mean bringing some real-world, practical experience into the courthouse.”

Sen. Klobuchar also told the nominee that she appreciated the story about how Sotomayor’s mother saved up to buy her children—Sonia and her brother—a set of encyclopedias.

“It reminded me of when my parents bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in the '70s that always held a hallowed place in the hallway,” Sen. Klobuchar said. “For me, those encyclopedias were a window on the world and a gateway to learning, as they clearly were for you.”

“From the time you were 9 years old, your mom raise you and your brother on her own,” Klobuchar continued. “She struggled to buy those encyclopedias on her nurse’s salary, but she did it because she believed deeply in the value of education.”

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