The Supreme Court: Testing Politicians for Drugs

Testing Politicians for Drugs

Libertarians had their first win in the Supreme Court when they successfully sued to strike down a Georgia law that required all politicians be tested for drugs before being allowed on the ballot. The Supreme Court ruled this law unconstitutional on April 15, 1997.

Walker Chandler, who ran for lieutenant governor in Georgia in 1994, took and passed the required drug test, but filed suit questioning the validity of the law. The legal battle took three years to get to the Supreme Court. Chandler lost twice before making it to the Supreme Court, once in the district court and once in the 11th Circuit Court.

Supreme Sayings

“[I]t is … immaterial that the intrusion was in aid of law enforcement. Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

—Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead v. United States in 1928

The Supreme Court finally agreed to hear his appeal on January 14, 1996. His argument was based on the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against “unreasonable” searches. Chandler believed there should be some limit to “suspicionless drug testing.” The Supreme Court agreed with him voting 8 to 1 to declare Georgia's law unconstitutional.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the near unanimous decision for the Court, which was joined by all but Chief Justice Rehnquist, who dissented. In her opinion, she wrote:

  • “By requiring candidates for public office to submit to drug testing, Georgia displays its commitment to the struggle against drug abuse. The suspicionless tests, according to respondents, signify that candidates, if elected, will be fit to serve their constituents free from the influence of illegal drugs. But Georgia asserts no evidence of a drug problem among the State's elected officials, those officials typically do not perform high risk, safety sensitive tasks, and the required certification immediately aids no interdiction effort. The need revealed, in short, is symbolic, not 'special,' as that term draws meaning from our case law … where the risk to public safety is substantial and real, blanket suspicionless searches calibrated to the risk may rank as 'reasonable'—for example, searches now routine at airports and at entrances to courts and other official buildings … But where, as in this case, public safety is not genuinely in jeopardy, the Fourth Amendment precludes the suspicionless search, no matter how conveniently arranged.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist in his dissent called the near unanimous opinion a “strange holding,” and wrote:

  • “Under normal Fourth Amendment analysis, the individual's expectation of privacy is an important factor in the equation. But here, the Court perversely relies on the fact that a candidate for office gives up so much privacy—'[c]andidates for public office … are subject to relentless scrutiny—by their peers, the public and the press,' …—as a reason for sustaining a Fourth Amendment claim. The Court says, in effect, that the kind of drug test for candidates required by the Georgia law is unnecessary, because the scrutiny to which they are already subjected by reason of their candidacy will enable people to detect any drug use on their part … The privacy concerns ordinarily implicated by urinalysis drug testing are 'negligible,' … when the procedures used in collecting and analyzing the urine samples are set up 'to reduce the intrusiveness' of the process. Under the Georgia law, the candidate may produce the test specimen at his own doctor's office, which must be one of the least intrusive types of urinalysis drug tests conceivable. But although the Court concedes this, it nonetheless manages to count this factor against the State, because with this kind of test the person tested will have advance notice of its being given, and will therefore be able to abstain from drug use during the necessary period of time. But one may be sure that if the test were random—and therefore apt to ensnare more users—the Court would then fault it for its intrusiveness.”

In both cases discussed in this section, suits were filed by people, who even though they were not charged with a crime, believed they were victims of an unreasonable invasion of their privacy in violation of their rights protected by the Fourth Amendment. In the next section, we'll explore the role the Fourth Amendment plays when evidence is being collected for the purpose of proving criminal activity.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.