Reversing course, the Supreme Court for the first time struck down a forced drug-testing program Tuesday, ruling that Georgia violated the Fourth Amendment by requiring political candidates to undergo tests for purely symbolic purposes.
While Georgia is the only state to pass such a law, the Supreme Court’s opinion voiding it will likely have a broad impact in limiting the government’s use of drug testing to situations involving public safety.
Until Tuesday, the Supreme Court had consistently upheld mandatory drug testing in cases involving railroad workers, custom agents, police officers and even high school athletes. But the 8-1 opinion in the Georgia case draws a line against this invasion of privacy except when public safety is threatened.
The drug test “diminishes personal privacy for a symbol’s sake,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “The Fourth Amendment shields society against that state action.”
Tuesday’s ruling has no direct impact on private employees, however. The Fourth Amendment only bars “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government.
Nonetheless, Ginsburg’s opinion breathes new life into a constitutional protection that has shrunken during the “war on the drugs.”
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the justices invoked the principle that searches are triggered only by an “individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.” For example, police normally cannot stop a pedestrian without a reason to suspect the pedestrian is violating the law.
But by the late 1980s, the justices began to uphold mass searches without regard to evidence of individual wrongdoing. For example, the justices approved routine searches of passengers on buses and trains and “sobriety roadblocks” on highways.
In Tuesday’s opinion, Ginsburg reverted to the older rule, insisting officials cannot invade an individual’s privacy unless there is “a concrete danger” to the public and a “special need” for the testing.
Three Libertarian Party members from Georgia brought the suit in 1994 and submitted to drug tests under protest in order to run for office that year. One of the three, Walker L. Chandler, reacted Tuesday with wary glee.
“Governments can always rationalize their intrusions, and liberty requires constant vigilance,” Chandler said. “I’m looking forward to the government’s next attempt to restrict the people and test them like hogs.”
Only Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented. The law “may seem misguided or even silly,” he wrote, but “it would take a bolder person than I to say that such widespread drug use could never extend to candidates for public office such as governor of Georgia.”
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