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Alumnus argues before high court

June 17, 2009

Matthew W. Wright, a 1991 alumnus of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, a case that was deemed by The Washington Post to be the "most important students' rights case in 25 years."

Wright, a managing member of the Phoenix law firm of Holm Wright Hyde & Hays PLC, represented the Safford Unified School District and its officials in a lawsuit filed by Savana Redding, an 8th grader at Safford Middle School. According to Wright, the school's assistant principal ordered female school officials to require the girl to disrobe on the basis of a tip by another student, who said she distributed and possessed a variety of pills including prescription and over-the-counter drugs, in violation of school policy.

The suit in District Court alleged the violation of Redding's Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. The lower court dismissed the case, and on initial appeal, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, affirmed. However, on rehearing, the court vacated its earlier opinion, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"After weeks of preparation and two moot court presentations, I argued before the United States Supreme Court" on April 21, Wright said. "My front-line mantra was that, where a school official has reason to suspect that a student possesses contraband that poses a potential risk to the health and safety of students, then searching anyplace where the student might be reasonably hiding the contraband is constitutional.

"Alternatively, the assistant principal certainly could have believed that ordering the search of Ms. Redding under these circumstances was constitutional, and therefore he was entitled to qualified immunity along with the other involved officials," he said.

"The school district urged the Court to rule on the constitutionality of the search, arguing that judicial conservation and the development of constitutional precedent militated toward a ruling on the issues, especially given that the case had been briefed and argued four times," Wright said. Another College of Law alum, Dave Pauole (Class of 2002), an associate at Wright's firm, appeared as co-counsel on the brief.0

"If the Court affirms the constitutionality of the search, the case will end," Wright said, noting that prominent experts who monitor the Court's cases and forecast outcomes have generally said the school district prevailed at oral argument. A decision on the case, declared by some to be one of the most important Supreme Court cases this term, is expected before the current term ends on June 30.

"Going before the court is a singular experience," said Wright, describing the justices as noble and the courtroom as majestic. "An austere decorum prevails. When the Marshall of the Court calls out, 'Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!,' a rush of adrenaline suffuses your body and mind. You realize that you are someplace special, a place where things are said and done differently than everywhere else in society. A place that is unique and glorious in this age of nihilism, and which is set apart as a symbol of something meaningful, honorable, virtuous, and decent. Indeed, it makes one proud to be a lawyer."

Wright offered this advice to students who may someday find themselves delivering oral arguments before the high court:

"Prepare like you are about to go in front of nine of the smartest people in American jurisprudence -- because that's precisely what you are up against," he said. "You can expect that the justices will detect every flaw in your logic and pick it apart. Best to stake out your perimeter, develop a mantra, provide the Court with a bright-line rule to follow, and then stand ready to address any flaws as best you can.

"Oral argument before the Supreme Court is truth serum. If you don't believe in your position, if you are not comfortable defending your logic, it can be a long 30 minutes. Otherwise, it's a piece of cake..."

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law