WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gave a skeptical hearing Tuesday to lawyers for a girl who was strip-searched in school when she was 13 on suspicion that she had extra-strength ibuprofen in her underwear.
Instead, most of the justices voiced concern about drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, and said they were wary of limiting officials' authority to search students for any drugs.
"How is a school administrator supposed to know?" Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked. "He sees a white pill and doesn't know if it is something terribly harmful, even deadly, or if it's prescription-strength ibuprofen."
In the case before the court, a vice principal at an Arizona middle school in 2003 told a nurse and an aide to take student Savana Redding to an office and to search her and her underwear to see if she was hiding the pills.
She had nothing to hide, and she and her mother sued Safford school officials on grounds that they had subjected her to an "unreasonable search."
She won last year before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the strip-search of an eighth-grader was unreasonable and unconstitutional and said that school officials who ordered the search were liable for damages.
If that ruling is affirmed, it will put a new limit on school searches nationwide. But that prospect dimmed during Tuesday's argument.
Adam Wolf, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who represented the Reddings, said the court should draw a line between "ordinary searches" and strip-searches. He said Savana had no objection to the principal looking through her backpack and belongings.
Wolf said that the vice principal had no reason to believe pills were hidden in her underwear, so the strip-search was unreasonable. A Justice Department lawyer also urged a limit on strip-searches.
But in their comments and questions, most of the justices disagreed.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a swing vote on many issues, has voted regularly to give police and school officials greater leeway to search for drugs.
"Is the nature of drug irrelevant?" he asked. What if "there is a very dangerous drug -- meth -- that's going to be distributed that afternoon?"
He asked whether a search in that instance would be reasonable.
No, Wolf replied. There was no reason to think a 13-year-old honor student had pills in her underwear, he said.
That reply did not appear to persuade Justice Stephen G. Breyer. It is "a logical thing" for adolescents to hide things. "They will stick them in their underwear," he said.
"And in my experience people did sometimes stick things in my underwear," he added, provoking laughter in the courtroom.
Breyer also questioned whether the strip-search was especially embarrassing. He said students regularly change into their gym clothes at school. He suggested the principal should have told Savana to change clothes so her underwear could be checked.
For a moment, Justice David H. Souter tried to put himself in the mind of the vice principal who had ordered the strip-search. The year before, a student had become violently ill after taking some unknown pills at school. The official may have feared a repeat.
"The thought process in the principal's mind is: Better embarrassment than the risk of violent sickness and death," Souter said. "What's wrong with that reasoning?"
Wolf said it would "send a shudder down the spines" of children around the nation if the court approved of strip-searches.
However, a lawyer for the Safford Unified School District urged the justices to rule that school officials have broad authority to search students. The vice principal in this case had been told that some students had pills, and that they were to be passed around at lunchtime. Based on that report, "he was entitled to search anyplace where contraband might reasonably be found," said Matthew Wright, the district's lawyer.
Justice Antonin Scalia asked if that applied to a "body-cavity search."
Wright replied that no school official would undertake such a search, but he insisted that it would be legal.
The case heard Tuesday has not been tried before a jury. A magistrate in Tucson ruled for the school district and threw out the Reddings' lawsuit.
The 9th Circuit, in a 6-5 decision, reversed that ruling and held that the strip-search violated Redding's constitutional rights.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. suggested during the argument that the suit should go to trial so a jury could decide whether the vice principal's order was reasonable in light of the circumstances.
A ruling in the case of Safford School District vs. Redding is scheduled to be issued by late June.