Yesterdays's decision, which you can read on the Court's web site (PDF), reached three conclusions. I'll share them all, even though only the first is only likely of interest to Constitutional Law geeks like me:
- The fact that a government official "wins" a case by virtue of qualified immunity does not deny that official Article III standing to seek appellate review of the underlying Constitutional issue in the case.
- In this case, the appeal is moot because the minor has left the State of Oregon and will soon turn 18, ensuring that she can never again be the subject of an Oregon social services investigation. Therefore, the appeal should be dismissed as moot.
- Because the subsequent events (S.G. growing up and moving to Florida) render the case moot, the 9th Circuit's Constitutional decision has essentially become unreviewable. Since the Supreme Court's general practice is that no foundational Constitutional principle should be established "by default", the 9th Circuit's decision on the 4th Amendment issue is vacated pursuant to United States v. Munsingwear.
This is (mostly) the outcome I predicted, but let me take a minute to re-state for everyone what the practical effects of this decision are.
As a practical matter, the Ninth Circuit's holding (that search warrants are required when social services workers and police officers interview a child in a school setting*) is no longer valid law. Camreta v. Green can not be cited in any other case in support of that proposed rule, and CWS workers need not assume they will always need a search warrant in this context. Since the issue remains undecided, qualified immunity may be a defense to future Constitutional claims against social workers under the Fourth Amendment. The law as it now stands is, for all intents and purposes, as it was before Camreta v. Green was decided.
However, this statement carries with it a caution for child welfare professionals. Because the Supreme Court decided the case on mootness grounds, they did so without actually considering the Constitutional issue of when a search warrant is or is not required. For this reason, while social workers need not assume they always need a search warrant to conduct a custodial interview of a child in a school setting, neither can they safely assume that a search warrant is never required. It could well be, in some future case where the appeal is not frustrated by mootness, that the Supreme Court will rule that search warrants are required in this context.
My suspicion (and, I must admit, my hope) is that social services agencies will decide that obtaining a search warrant is cheaper than fighting yet another legal battle like the one Camreta and his employer fought here. In true exigent circumstances, of course, a warrant is not required. But I've always felt the idea that any child welfare investigation automatically constitutes exigent circumstances for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment is absolute nonsense. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Supreme Court will ultimately agree with me, but I hope they do.
At the end of the day, we're back to where we were before this case was decided: The answer to the question "do social workers require search warrants to talk to a child in school?" is a very clear and unequivocal "who the heck knows?"
* This case only reaches the Fourth Amendment issue in the context of an interview conducted in a school. In a prior case, Calabretta v. Floyd, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that (at least within the states of AZ, CA, NV, ID, MT, OR, WA, AK, HI and the Northern Mariana Islands) a search warrant was required to conduct a forced interview and search of a child in the context of the family's home. This decision was never appealed to the Supreme Court, so it remains binding law within the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction.