Supreme Court’s Camreta ruling raises one more barrier to students’ constitutional claims

The courthouse door that a federal appeals court began closing on student litigants in 2007 inched a little more tightly shut on Thursday, when the Supreme Court avoided deciding whether child-abuse investigators violated the Fourth Amendment when they interrogated a 9-year-old potential victim.

In the case, Camreta v. Greene, the Court declined to reach the primary constitutional issue: Whether police can constitutionally question an elementary school student in her principal’s office without a warrant, parental consent, or emergency circumstances.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had decided that the interrogation was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, but that the law was unsettled at the time of the events (February 2003), so the interrogators could not be held liable for money damages to the Greene family. This doctrine, “qualified immunity,” is meant to shield government employees from having to pay damages if they unwittingly violate the Constitution while making a close judgment call.

The ruling on qualified immunity normally would have ended the case with a hollow victory for the Greenes — a ruling that their child’s rights were violated, but that no compensation could be had.

Except that defendant Bob Camreta, who is still a child protective services caseworker in Oregon, was not content to leave intact a ruling that he violated the Fourth Amendment. He argued to the Supreme Court that, although the winning party normally doesn’t get to appeal, his situation was different, because he wasn’t really a “winner” — he was, after all, found to have broken the law.

This question — whether Camreta could appeal even though he was ultimately the winner — turned out to be the primary issue dividing the justices. Justice Elena Kagan’s 7-2 majority opinion said that, under the unique circumstances, Camreta was entitled to pursue a ruling on the underlying constitutional issue. Dissenting Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas questioned that jurisdictional end-run.

But there appeared to be no disagreement on the issue of concern to students, which turned out to be the decisive one for the Court: The case was rendered moot when the student’s family moved away to Florida, where she has either completed school or is about to graduate. Therefore, the Court tossed the case and did not give Camreta the constitutional ruling he wished for.

“[The student] faces not the slightest possibility of being seized in a school in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction as part of a child abuse investigation,” Kagan wrote. “When ‘subsequent events make it absolutely clear that the alleged wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur,’ we have no live controversy to review.”

This is the second shoe of a pair that the courts began dropping in 2007, when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the First Amendment claims of former student editors at Kansas State University.

In that case, Lane v. Simon, the appeals court decided that the students’ constitutional claims were moot, because — even if Kansas State had violated their rights — once they graduated, the university was no longer in a position to injure them again.

The court gave future students a road map to follow for keeping their constitutional claims alive, suggesting that if the students had asked for money damages from their censors rather than just a court injunction against future censorship, the case might still be alive, because even a long-departed student can still benefit from an award of money damages.

But the Camreta ruling now represents another judicial speed bump on the way to the courthouse. Even if a student does seek monetary damages in addition to an injunctive order declaring the government’s behavior illegal, the claim for damages can be roadblocked by a finding of qualified immunity.

And this is happening increasingly, since the Supreme Court decided in 2009 that it’s no longer necessary for a federal court facing a constitutional claim to decide whether the government did or didn’t act constitutionally, if the case can be easily dismissed on immunity grounds.

This is exactly what befell student blogger Avery Doninger in her First Amendment case against a Connecticut principal, which a federal appeals court threw out last month without coming to a conclusion about the constitutionality of the school’s censorship.

While it is tempting for courts to avoid making unnecessary constitutional rulings that turn out to have no practical impact — as with the Greenes, who walked away with a “win” but nothing to show for it — the law will never get any clearer if courts are encouraged simply to throw up their hands, say “we can’t tell if this was illegal,” and grant immunity. Future government employees need for the courts to step up and make the hard decisions that judges, after all, are better-positioned to make than principals or social workers.

The Camreta mootness ruling represents another incremental closing of the courthouse door for young people whose rights are trampled. It reinforces the unfortunate message to schools that it’s often possible to get away with violating the Constitution by running out the clock.