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3 High Court Rulings Change Legal Landscape


The U.S. Supreme Court has changed the legal landscape in several major areas of the law: first, when, if ever, school officials may conduct strip searches of students for drugs - second, the right of criminal defendants to cross-examine crime lab analysts, and third, when federal courts may act to enforce federal mandates on the states, which is the case that NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg begins with.

NINA TOTENBERG: In the case involving the federal law on English-language education, the court made it easier for state schools to get out from under federal court supervision. The five-to-four decision could have far-reaching consequences for litigations seeking to enforce other federal standards on mental hospitals, prisons and other state institutions.

In a case involving the strip search of a 13-year-old honor student, the court put new limits on how far school officials can go in searching students. By an eight-to-one vote, the court said it was reasonable to search Savana Redding's backpack and outer garments, but not reasonable to subject the girl to a strip search, especially in light of the humiliating nature of such a search, the limited dangers of the ibuprofen she was suspected of giving a friend and the slim basis for the school officials' suspicions.

The court did hand school officials one partial victory by making its ruling prospective, meaning that while school officials in the future can be subject to personal damage suits, in this case, the suit against the officials who searched Redding was tossed out. Redding, nonetheless, was elated.

Ms. SAVANA REDDING (Student): I feel victorious right now. I don't want this to ever happen to anybody, and it makes it all worthwhile for me.

TOTENBERG: The court's third ruling, requiring crime lab analysts to testify, will undoubtedly have the most immediate consequences. The decision delivered a major jolt to the criminal justice system. Until yesterday, prosecutors in the vast majority of states submitted notarized reports from crime lab analysts as evidence in criminal trials, and the analysts were not required to testify.

But yesterday, a bitterly divided Supreme Court said that procedure is unconstitutional unless the defense agrees to it. Writing for the five-member majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Constitution in specific words guarantees a defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him. And a crime lab analyst, he said, is a witness with important evidence.

Indeed, said Scalia, multiple studies have demonstrated that scientific evidence is hardly immune to manipulation, fraud or error. An angry Justice Anthony Kennedy in dissent accused the majority of defying common sense to put the criminal justice system in jeopardy.

As of today, only 10 states appear to have state laws that comply with the Supreme Court's decision. Scott Burns of the National District Attorney's Association said the decision would be costly and chaotic.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive Director, National District Attorney's Association): In the real world, it's bad for already stressed state budgets. I mean, we're going to have criminalists who should be in the labs doing their work sitting in courtrooms all day.

SHAPIRO: Alabama Deputy Attorney General Corey Maze, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of 35 states, said the decision is not as bad as it could have been since the Supreme Court provided something of a road map for state compliance: require the prosecution to notify the defense pre-trial when crime lab reports are to be introduced, and if the defense wants the analyst to testify, it must say so in advance of trial. Corey Maze.

Deputy Attorney General COREY MAZE (State of Alabama): The question then simply becomes: Do defense attorneys always demand the presence, or do they do like they do currently, only demand in 5 to 10 percent of cases? We won't know that, you know, at least for the next couple of years.

TOTENBERG: If prosecutors were upset by the ruling, though, some leading forensic experts were not. Thomas Bohan, president of the National Academy of Forensic Scientists, called the decision a no-brainer.

Mr. THOMAS BOHAN (President, National Academy of Forensic Sciences): Many of the techniques which are thought by the public, and by judges, to have been scientifically established have not been. I mean, this includes handwriting analysis, bite mark matching. It includes latent fingerprints, which have never been quantitatively studied concerning the error rate.

TOTENBERG: Remember the FBI's 100 percent match of a Portland lawyer's fingerprints with those found on the detonators of a Spanish train bomb? Three FBI experts vouched for the match until Spanish authorities matched an Algerian suspect instead. Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project notes that forensic scientists for years produced reports of hair matches without mentioning that the hair also matched thousands of other people's hair.

Mr. PETER NEUFELD (Innocence Project): We have had more than three dozen wrongful conviction cases where the crime analyst wrote a report saying the hair matched.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, last February, a report by the National Academy of Sciences found crime labs across the country plagued by incompetence, fraud and just plain, bad science. The report called for the creation of a federal agency to establish standards for crime lab testing.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

United States & World Morning Edition
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.