BOSTON — In a rebuke to hard-liners in the war on drugs, the US Supreme Court has ruled that state and local governments cannot require candidates for public office to pass a drug test.
The high court, in a 8 to 1 decision, struck down a controversial Georgia law - the only one in the country - that required all state politicians to prove they're drug-free before seeking office. The ruling, a victory for privacy rights, moves the court a step closer toward defining when an adult can - and can't - be legally forced to submit to such tests.
For years, the Supreme Court has gone back and forth on what is regarded as a legitimate drug test, since the Constitution forbids "unreasonable searches." Recently, the high court has steadily granted new powers of bodily searches for individuals involved in sensitive jobs, like airline pilots or train engineers - or even of minors who are athletes in public schools.
The April 15 decision will not change the law on such "special needs" cases. But the court drew the line on drug testing politicians for whom there is no evidence of a problem.
The Georgia law was passed in the heat of the so-called war on drugs in the late 1980s. In writing for the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that Georgia's law "is not well designed to identify candidates who violate antidrug laws."
The eight justices, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissenting, rejected Georgia's argument that government officials need to set a good example.
"However well-meant, the candidate drug test Georgia has devised diminishes personal privacy for a symbol's sake. The Fourth Amendment shields society against that state action," Justice Ginsburg wrote.
The high court ruling also dealt a blow to the US Justice Department, which sided with Georgia state officials in the case. They argued that people are not required to run for public office. If they choose to do so, they should be willing to submit to a test. State and federal officials also argued that the privacy concerns of a urinalysis are "negligible."
Currently, politicians in the Peach State are required to take a urinalysis test 30 days before filing for office and to file a certificate showing they are drug free.
In 1994, three candidates for the Libertarian Party in Georgia, including Walker Chandler, a candidate for lieutenant governor, took Georgia to court. They filed a petition saying the drug test was not only an unreasonable search, but that it was a violation of constitutional free-speech guarantees - since it made the free expression of political ideas determinant upon a urinalysis test.
Chandler et al. lost their petition in two lower courts, including the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that drug tests for politicians helped citizens be more aware of the "perils of drug use." Yesterday's case, Georgia v. Chandler, was argued in Washington in mid-January, and legal scholars say the quick decision by the high court showed clear unanimity on the issues. "The key to this decision was obviously Georgia's ineffectiveness in identifying drug users," says Mark Tushnet of the Georgetown University School of Law. "The justices pointed out that since the candidates for office took the test only within a 30-day period prior to filing, that only the truly addicted candidate would be caught."
Experts say it is relatively easy to cheat on drug tests. The court implied in its ruling that the conduct of politicians as they run for office would be a better determination of drug use than a one-time test. Moreover, the court drew a line when it comes to testing persons who are "suspicionless" and not in jobs that create immediate dangers for others, or even high-profile positions.
Current standards of Fourth Amendment law on the right to test individuals for drugs range from "probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion" based on evidence of a crime or pattern of abuse. Prior to Chandler v. Miller, a broad range of constitutional scholars argued against allowing the drug testing of politicians, saying that rather than sending a message of public trust, it would make it easier to suspend long held privacy rights and increase the ability of the state to examine the body.