The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday sidestepped an important test of whether in-school interviews of students by the police and other authorities require a warrant, ruling that the case—involving the questioning of an Oregon girl by authorities who believed she was a victim of sexual abuse at home—was moot.
However, without deciding the merits of the issue, the court set aside part of a federal appeals court ruling that the Fourth Amendment required investigators to have a warrant or parental consent before interviewing students in school.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority in Camreta v. Greene (Case No. 09-1454), said that because the young woman at the center of the case no longer lived in Oregon and would soon graduate from high school, she no longer faced the prospect of a warrantless police interview in school.
“When subsequent events make it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur, we have no live controversy to review,” Justice Kagan said in an opinion joined by four of her colleagues. The overall judgment was 7-2.
The case was prompted by the ordeal of a girl identified in court papers as S.G. In 2003, 9-year-old S.G. was pulled from her Bend, Ore., classroom, taken to a school office, and interviewed by a state child-protective-services caseworker and a deputy sheriff.
The authorities suspected the girl was being sexually abused at home. After lengthy questioning, the girl told the investigators that she had been touched inappropriately by her father. The girl and her sister were briefly removed from their home, but criminal charges against the father were later dismissed. The father accepted a plea agreement over abuse charges involving another child.
S.G.'s mother sued not only the investigators who questioned her daughter, but also the Bend-La Pine school district and the school counselor who had removed the girl from class. The school defendants were dismissed early in the case. The mother said in court papers that only after two hours of denying any abuse did S.G. tell the investigators what the girl believed they wanted to hear—that her father had touched her improperly.
The suit led to a 2009 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, that S.G.'s Fourth Amendment rights were violated because she had been seized in the absence of a warrant, parental consent, or other special circumstances.
This led to a procedurally messy appeal to the Supreme Court by the investigators, a state child-abuse caseworker and a deputy sheriffs, who were granted qualified immunity from liability in this case but said they would be hampered by the rule requiring a warrant or parental consent in future school interviews of suspected abuse victims.
In her May 26 opinion, Justice Kagan said the high court could review a lower court’s ruling on a constitutional issue even when the appeal was brought by officials who were deemed to have qualified immunity in the case. That issue alone is important in the field of public education, in which many suits challenging school policies and actions are resolved on immunity grounds but often also involve a ruling on the merits of a constitutional issue.
Justice Kagan said the court was bending its usual rule that bars prevailing parties, such as the officials who won immunity in this case, from appealing to the high court. She said qualified-immunity rulings in cases in which lower courts also rule on constitutional issues “have a significant future effect on the conduct of public officials—both the prevailing parties and their co-workers—and the policies of the government units to which they belong.”
Kagan said that after granting review of the case, the court learned that S.G. had moved to Florida. The teenager is now approaching her 18th birthday and presumably about to graduate from high school, Kagan said.
“S.G. therefore cannot be affected by the Court of Appeals’ ruling,” Kagan said. “She faces not the slightest possibility of being seized in a school in the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction as part of a child abuse investigation.”
Kagan said the mootness of S.G.'s underlying case in turn has frustrated the appeal rights of the investigators to challenge the 9th Circuit’s constitutional ruling.
The majority vacated that part of the 9th Circuit ruling, which is significant in that it removes, for now, the requirement that warrants or parental consent are required for in-school interviews.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Justice Kagan’s opinion.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed an opinion, joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, saying she agreed the case was moot, but she would not have reached the issue of whether the officials granted immunity in this case had the right to appeal.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said that clarification of the court’s principles on qualified immunity and constitutional rulings was in order, but that in this case he would have dismissed the appeal.
“It is most doubtful that Article III [of the Constitution] permits appeals by any officer to whom the reasoning of a judicial decision might be applied in a later suit,” Justice Kennedy said. “Yet that appears to be the implication of the court’s holding.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.