Ruling Could Put Brakes On School Drug Testing, Some Law Experts Say

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The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a drug-testing program for the first time last week, ruling that a Georgia law requiring such tests of candidates for high state office runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches.

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The 8-1 ruling could dampen the enthusiasm with which some school districts have proposed the expansion of drug testing, legal experts said.

"This says that government agencies, including school boards, do not have carte blanche to engage in any drug-testing programs that they can devise," said Steven R. Shapiro, a lawyer with the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the Georgia law.

The April 15 ruling in Chandler v. Miller (Case No. 96-126) came less than two years after the high court upheld an Oregon district's policy of random drug testing of student athletes. ("Court Upholds Drug Tests for Student Athletes," July 12, 1995.)

But that 6-3 ruling, in Vernonia School District v. Acton, was based in large measure on evidence that drug use had been a problem among the athletes at Vernonia (Ore.) High School.

In the Georgia case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority that the law was not designed to address any evidence of actual drug use by candidates for state office.

"However well-meant, the candidate drug test Georgia has devised diminishes personal privacy for a symbol's sake," Justice Ginsburg wrote.

The 1990 law covered such offices as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state schools superintendent. It was challenged in 1994 by three Libertarian Party candidates for state office.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was the lone dissenter, stating that the law was a reasonable response to the major problem of illegal drugs.

"Surely the state need not wait for a drug addict, or one inclined to use drugs illegally, to run for or actually become governor before" adopting a preventive drug-testing program, he said.

Drawing a Line

If the Supreme Court had upheld the Georgia law, some civil liberties advocates had feared that government agencies would seek a major expansion of drug testing of employees and perhaps students.

Georgia passed a separate measure in 1990 requiring drug testing of all applicants for state employment, including school teachers. That law was struck down by a federal district court that year but was not at issue before the Supreme Court.

Justice Ginsburg had joined the majority that upheld drug testing of student-athletes in the Vernonia case. But in the Georgia case, she emphasized that to pass constitutional muster, drug-testing programs must address a genuine problem with drugs among the targeted group.

In the wake of the Vernonia ruling, a growing number of districts have adopted drug-testing programs for athletes, and some have subjected students involved in all extracurricular activities to random testing. At least one such policy, in Tulia, Texas, has been challenged in court. ("Drug-Test Policy Spurs Student To Sue Board," Feb. 19, 1997.)

Mr. Shapiro said the Chandler ruling sends the message that the Supreme Court "will not sustain a drug-testing program in the absence of a documented and severe problem."

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