Drug Testing of Candidates Struck Down by High Court
By Joan Biskupic
States may not force political candidates to take drug tests, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, striking down a Georgia law as mere symbolism.
By an 8 to 1 vote, the justices said Georgia's law violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The law said that candidates who refused to submit to a drug test or who tested positive for illegal drugs could not be placed on the ballot.
"However well-meant," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court, acknowledging the nation's problem of illicit drug use, "the candidate drug test Georgia has devised diminishes personal privacy for a symbol's sake."
The ruling was a triumph for opponents of broad-scale government drug testing, an increasingly common practice in an era of heightened concern for narcotics abuse. However, the court emphasized that the unique Georgia law, covering the governor, lieutenant governor, other top officials, judges and legislators, was not enacted in response to any reported illegal drug use among politicians. When the risk to public safety is real, the justices said, blanket searches would be allowed.
The court traditionally has forbidden states to search an individual unless the person is suspected of wrongdoing. (Requiring a urine specimen is a "search" under the Fourth Amendment, according to prior rulings.) But, in the interest of public safety, the court since 1989 has upheld drug testing, without any individualized suspicion, for railroad workers, Customs Service agents and student athletes. Yesterday's ruling marked the first time in recent years the court has invalidated a drug test that was touted as weakening the scourge of drugs.
"This is a small victory for liberty," declared Walker L. Chandler, a Libertarian Party candidate for lieutenant governor who challenged the 1990 Georgia law and defended himself before the high court. "They haven't overruled other kinds of drug testing. You can't relax your vigilance, even for one day."
The American Civil Liberties Union was more enthusiastic, saying the decision "sends a strong message, especially from a court that is not normally sympathetic to Fourth Amendment claims. The drug testing program in this case was never anything more than political grandstanding."
Georgia Attorney General Michael J. Bowers called the ruling unfortunate, saying, "Even if it's symbolic, the people of Georgia should be able to say that just for this one time we want [candidates] to show they are drug-free." The case had been closely watched by other state officials, and Bowers noted that the decision in Chandler v. Miller obviously will discourage other states from following Georgia's lead.
Only Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented yesterday. He emphasized America's drug problems and said states should not have to wait for a known drug addict to run for office before passing a law to prevent such situations.
In a filing to the Supreme Court, Georgia officials tried to defend their statute by pointing in part to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was convicted of cocaine possession in 1990. Georgia said the urinalysis requirement could deter unlawful drug users from becoming candidates and winning office. But Ginsburg said no concrete danger or special need had been established to require an exception to the general rule that government cannot search someone without individual suspicion.
"Georgia asserts no evidence of a drug problem among the state's elected officials, [and] those officials typically do not perform high-risk, safety-sensitive tasks," she said. In a portion of her opinion read from the bench, Ginsburg added that Georgia's program is not even effectively designed to identify candidates who use illegal drugs, saying, "The test date is picked by the candidate, so all but the uncontrollably addicted could escape detection."
Lower courts had upheld the state law, saying government interests outweighed individual expectations of privacy and relying primarily on rulings allowing drug testing for public safety officers. Yesterday, Ginsburg emphasized the differences between those cases and that of Chandler, who had passed his drug test and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.
In a 1989 case, the court upheld a federal requirement that railroad employees be tested for drug and alcohol use after major accidents. Ginsburg noted that the court said railroad employees, who work in an industry heavily regulated to ensure safety, had diminished expectations of privacy. Overriding safety interests were evident, she said.
Similarly, in a 1989 decision allowing mandatory drug testing by the Customs Service for jobs involving drug interdiction or the carrying of firearms, the government wanted to assure that such front-line employees were not drug users.
In 1995, the court permitted public schools to test student athletes for drugs, and Ginsburg noted yesterday the importance of deterring narcotics use by schoolchildren and the risk of injury by drugged student athletes.
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