A Georgia law mandating political candidates to undergo a drug test before running for public office failed to demonstrate a “special need” substantial enough to override Constitutional protections granted by the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. The Courts’ 8-1 decision marked a departure from three previous rulings permitting suspicionless and warrantless drug testing among railway employees, U.S. Custom Service employees, and high school athletes.
“This is a small victory for liberty,” said Attorney Walker Chandler, one of three Libertarian candidates who successfully challenged the law. “We’re moving as a society toward drug testing of everybody, everyday. At least the court finally said there are limits.”
Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the Georgia drug testing statute differed from earlier policies affirmed by the High Court. “Our precedents establish that the … special need for drug testing must be substantial — important enough to override the individual’s acknowledged privacy interest, sufficiently vital to suppress the Fourth Amendment’s normal requirement of individualized suspicion. Georgia has failed to show … a special need of that kind.”
Noting that Georgia officials acknowledged the law was not enacted “in response to any fear or suspicion of drug use by state officials,” the Court concluded that the statute existed solely to “display [the state’s] commitment to the struggle against drug abuse.” This “commitment,” though commended by the Court, was determined to be “symbolic” and, thus, failed to meet the “special needs” requirement established by prior case law.
“However well-meant, the candidate drug test Georgia has devised diminishes personal privacy for a symbol’s sake,” concluded Ginsburg. “The Fourth Amendment shields society against that state action.”
The Court also determined the Georgia policy to be both ineffective at identifying candidates who violate anti-drug laws and deterring illicit drug users from seeking election to state office. Ginsburg further argued that political officials do not generally perform high-risk jobs where “risk to public safety is substantial.”
“The Supreme Court has held that there are constitutional limits to the state’s authority to require drug testing, absent individualized suspicion, and that the desire to ‘set a good example’ is insufficient to justify an exemption to the Fourth Amendment,” said NORML’s Executive Director R. Keith Stroup, Esq.
The Court reiterated its position that blanket suspicionless searches can be required where the risk to public safety is significant, such as at airports and entrances to official buildings.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented.
For more information, please contact Walter Chandler, Esq. at (707) 567-3882 or Paul Armentano of NORML at (202) 483-5500. Copies of NORML‘s position paper: A Look At The Historical Legal Basis For Urine Testing are available upon request.