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Federal Judge Strikes Down Georgia's Drug-Testing Law

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A federal judge, acting on a suit brought by a state teachers' union, has struck down a Georgia law compelling applicants for public-school and state-government jobs to be tested for drug use.

The statute at issue was believed to be the only statewide drug-screening mandate covering all prospective public-school employees.

U.S. District Judge Robert H. Hall this month ruled in the case, Georgia Association of Educators v. Joe Frank Harris, that the law violated applicants' privacy rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

"I think [the decision is] going to stop in its tracks all the efforts around the country by any government entity to just test anyone," Michael E. Kramer, general counsel for the GAE, said last week. "It's going to require government entities to sit down and think this thing through."

Several school districts across the country have instituted employee drug-testing policies recently in the wake of a federal law on drug-free workplaces. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1990.)

Mr. Kramer also said the ruling would save Georgia taxpayers' money. The cost of testing applicants for state jobs had been pegged at $3 million annually. Districts had the option of picking up the cost or passing it on to applicants.

The teachers' union filed suit against the state weeks after the Applicant Drug Screening Act took effect July 1. School officials had estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 certified teachers and administrators would have been screened each year.

Judge Hall issued a temporary restraining order on July 20; consequently, few prospective school employees were actually affected.

Within the three-week period that the law was enforced, some 1,500 applicants in all public agencies reported to a "sample-collection facility" for urine testing. According to Mr. Kramer, only .06 percent of those applicants tested positive.

During its 1990 session, the Georgia legislature passed the act as part of an expansive package of laws aimed at reducing drug abuse. While much of the legislation addressed drug-education programs, the drug-screening act targeted would-be educators, school support- staff members, and state employees.

The law also required veteran employees to undergo drug testing if they transferred to another school district or governmental agency.

Applicants who failed the test would have been barred from seeking positions with the public schools or state government for two years.

1989 Case Cited

Judge Hall based his decision primarily on a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case, National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, which involved U.S. Customs agents whose jobs included interdicting drugs, using firearms, and handling classified information.

The High Court found that the government's interest in drug testing without obtaining a warrant or suspecting individual abuse outweighed the privacy rights of public workers whose job duties posed a potential danger to public safety.

"The [district] court finds it difficult to even begin applying that balancing test, however," Judge Hall wrote in his 21-page opinion, "be cause defendants have failed to specifically identify any governmental interest that is sufficiently compelling to justify testing all job applicants."

"Moreover," he continued, "defendants remain oblivious to Von Raab's (and indeed, the Fourth Amendment's) requirement that it connect its interest in testing to the particular job duties of the applicants it wishes to test. Instead, defendants attempt to justify their comprehensive drug-testing program based on a generalized govern mental interest in maintaining a drug-free workplace.

The judge refused to differentiate between current employees and applicants, noting that the state had failed to articulate an overriding interest in screening the newcomers.

The judge also scuttled the argument advanced by the state that it should be able to adopt the drug-testing practices of the private sector lest the state government become a "dumping ground" for drug addicts.

In the event that Georgia lost the suit, the state had sought the court's guidance on what job categories would survive a constitutional test. Although Judge Hall said no portion of the state law could be preserved, he did refer state authorities to the Von Raab case and Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association, another 1989 Supreme Court decision, which permitted drug screening of some transportation workers.

"The court is not forbidding defendants from drug testing those job applicants whom they are constitution ally permitted to test," he wrote.

Among those in the education community who could fall into such a category are school-bus drivers. Mr. Kramer said at least a half-dozen of the state's 189 school districts have adopted random-drug-testing policies for transportation workers. State officials could not be reached for comment on Judge Hall's decision.

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