Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997) (Candidates)

In 1990, the Georgia legislature passed a law requiring that each candidate for state office certify that he or she had tested negative for illegal drugs. The statute limited qualification to those who had passed a urinalysis test administered by a state-approved laboratory. The tests sought to identify use of marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and phencyclidines. The statute covered such posts as the governor, the school superintendent, and justices of the state supreme court. Some candidates, including Walker L. Chandler, the Libertarian nominee for Lieutenant Governor, sued the state, arguing that the mandatory drug testing violated the Fourth Amendment.

When the case reached the U. S. Supreme Court, it raised the question of whether the Fourth Amendment allowed states to compel drug tests of candidates absent any showing of individualized suspicion. The Court recognized that the Fourth Amendment, in protecting ‘‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures,’’ usually required that searches of a citizen’s own body only be permitted when the government had some level of information, such as probable cause, to believe it would find something illegal. The Court had crafted an exception to this general rule to apply only under certain limited circumstances, called ‘‘special needs.’’ In these special needs cases, the government pursued information not for criminal prosecution, but for narrow goals beyond those of law enforcement. The Court had previously accepted drug testing as meeting a special need for only certain groups of people, such as student athletes (to protect the educational environment of schools), customs agents (to protect the security of the nation’s borders), and railroad employees (to ensure the safety of trains).

To decide whether drug testing of candidates fell within special needs, the Court balanced the competing interests of the public and the individual. In this analysis, special needs were found when the privacy interest implicated by the government search was ‘‘minimal’’ whereas the government interest in the search was ‘‘substantial—important enough to override the individual’s acknowledged privacy interest.’’ In assessing the citizen’s side of the scales, the Chandler Court deemed Georgia’s testing method to be ‘‘relatively noninvasive.’’ The Court, however, was troubled when it focused on the government’s side of the equation. Since the state tests could be foiled by abstention before the testing date, Georgia’s scheme would be ineffective in identifying illicit drug users. The only purpose remaining in testing candidates was to display the government ‘‘commitment to the struggle against drug abuse.’’ Such a ‘‘symbolic’’ need was not enough to be ‘‘special,’’ for ‘‘diminishing personal privacy for a symbol’s sake’’ did not pass Fourth Amendment muster. The Court therefore held that Georgia’s mandatory drug testing of candidates did not ‘‘fit within the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches.’’

The long-term impact of Chandler remains uncertain. Five years after Chandler, the Court reaffirmed drug testing as within special needs in Board of Education v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002). In Earls, the Court upheld urinalysis of students participating in extracurricular activities. The language of the Earls decision left in doubt whether Chandler represented a curtailment of the entire special needs doctrine or merely a refinement in the context of candidates for public office.

GEORGE M. DERY, III

References and Further Reading

  • Dery III, George M., Are Politicians More Deserving of Privacy than Schoolchildren? How Chandler v. Miller Exposed the Absurdities of Fourth Amendment ‘‘Special Needs’’ Balancing, Ariz. L. Rev. 40 (1998): 73. 
  • United States Constitution, Amendment IV. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

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