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Drug Testing Political Candidates Violates Fourth Amendment, Supreme Court Rules


May-June 1997

A Georgia law that required political candidates to test negative for drug use in order to be placed on the ballot violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the Supreme Court ruled on April 15 by an 8 to 1 decision (Chandler v. Miller, US SupCt, No. 96-126, 61CrL2010, (April 15, 1997); Joan Biskupic, "Drug Testing of Candidates Struck Down by High Court," Washington Post, April 16, 1997, p. A1; Linda Greenhouse, "Supreme Court Strikes Down Drug Testing of Candidates," New York Times, April 16, 1997, p. A12; Criminal Law Reporter, April 16, 1997, vol. 61, no. 3, p. 2009).

"However well-meant," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court, "the candidate drug test Georgia has devised diminishes personal privacy for a symbol's sake." The court ruled 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. Ginsburg said "nothing in the record hints that the hazards respondents [state of Georgia] broadly describe are real and not simply hypothetical for Georgia's polity." 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."

The court relied heavily on three prior drug testing cases (Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989); Skinner v. Railway Executives' Assn., 489 U.S. 602 (1989); and Veronia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 57Crl2200, US SupCt (1995)), which allowed drug testing based on "special needs," such as a risk to public safety. In those cases, the Supreme Court upheld drug testing -- without any individualized suspicion -- for railroad workers, Customs Service agents and student athletes respectively. The Chandler ruling is the first time in recent years that the court has invalidated a drug test that was defended as fighting the problem of illicit drug use. Lower courts had upheld the state law, saying government interests outweighed individual expectations of privacy (see "11th Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Georgia Law Mandating Drug Tests for Political Candidates," NewsBriefs, March 1996).

"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 argued for himself before the high court. Chandler, who passed his drug test, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. The American Civil Liberties Union said the decision "sends a strong message, especially from a court that is not normally sympathetic to Fourth Amendment claims."

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." Bowers said that the decision will probably discourage other states from enacting similar drug testing laws. Georgia officials tried to defend their statute by pointing to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was convicted of cocaine possession in 1990. They said the drug testing law could deter unlawful drug users from becoming candidates and winning office.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist cast the only dissenting vote, saying that sttes should not have to wait for a known drug addict to run for office before passing a law to prevent such situations. Rehnquist said the majority was distorting the "special needs" standard by requiring more than a showing of a "proper governmental purpose."

The decision prompted favorable responses by major editorial boards. The New York Times called the decision a "welcome message ... that there are some searches the war on drugs cannot justify" (Editorial, "Drawing a Line on Drug Tests," New York Times, April 16, 1997, p. A28). The Washington Post said "these searches were not justified by the high court's precedents. The justices were right to bar them" (Editorial, "Drug Tests of Whom?" Washington Post, April 17, 1997, p. A22).