The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the case of the 13-year-old girl strip-searched at school

Then-Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses in her robe in her office at U.S. District Court in Washington on Aug. 3, 1993. Earlier, the Senate had voted 96-3 to confirm Bader as the 107th justice and the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at her home in Washington on Sept. 18. (Doug Mills/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a deep mark on the world of education, opening doors for women, upholding the separation of church and state, supporting school desegregation and taking other stands to widen opportunity.

Perhaps her best-known education-related case came in the 1966 majority opinion she wrote that barred the Virginia Military Academy from excluding girls.

The state of Virginia argued to the court at the time that women could not handle tough military training, and it set up a separate program at Mary Baldwin College that Ginsburg wrote in the opinion was a “pale” imitation of the VMI program. That violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, she wrote.

But another case served to underscore the humanity with which she approached her decisions and why many court watchers say it is so important for the Supreme Court to include a diverse group of justices with different experiences and points of view.

The case was Safford Unified School District v. Redding, in which the court in 2009 ruled that the strip search of a 13-year-old girl at her school in Arizona was unconstitutional. Justice David Souter wrote the opinion for the majority, which included Ginsburg, who also wrote her own opinion explaining why she agreed with parts of the majority but dissented from another.

The girl, Savana Redding, was in math class at Safford Middle School when Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson escorted her to his office and told her she had been accused of giving out pain medication — both prescription and over-the-counter — to other students. The accuser was a student who had been caught with some of the medication. Redding, who had no history of disciplinary problems at the school, denied it.

School officials searched her belongings but found nothing, and then, with no reason to think that any pills were on her person, told her to remove her outer clothing and allow them to see under her bra and underpants to continue the search. She complied; they did not find any pills.

Her mother sued the school district, arguing that her rights under the Fourth Amendment — which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure by the federal government — had been violated. Souter wrote the majority 8-1 opinion, agreeing that the girl’s Fourth Amendment right had been violated but also that school officials were entitled to qualified immunity, as the officials had argued, and could not be held financially responsible. The issue of the school district’s liability was sent back to a lower court.

Ginsburg was the only woman on the nine-member court at the time oral arguments were made in the case in April 2009. During the arguments, some of the male justices made light of the humiliation the girl felt because of the strip search — even though they had amicus briefs and other information about how devastating strip searches can be to adolescents.

Ginsburg was alone in expressing strong concern about the effect of the strip search. She wrote her own opinion in the case in which she concurred with the court’s majority ruling that the strip search had violated the teenager’s constitutional rights but dissented from its conclusion that the vice principal had limited immunity.

In an interview she did with USA Today between the time the case was argued before the court in April and publication of the decision in June, she told reporter Joan Biskupic that her male colleagues had shown by their comments during oral arguments that they did not understand how a girl could be affected by a strip search.

“They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” Ginsburg said. “It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I don’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”

Biskupic wrote this about the discussion during the arguments:

“After Redding was searched and nothing was found, she was put in a chair outside the vice principal's office for over two hours, and her mother wasn't called,” Ginsburg noted during oral arguments. “What was the reason for … putting her in that humiliating situation?"
One of Ginsburg's liberal colleagues, fellow Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer, saw it a little differently. He said he had a hard time understanding the girl's claim that her rights had been violated.
"I'm trying to work out why is this a major thing to, say, strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym," Breyer said. "How bad is this?"
Ginsburg retorted that school officials had directed Redding "to shake (her) bra out, to shake, shake, stretch the top of (her) pants."

Here’s the complete court ruling in the case: