Originally created 03/03/98

Top court permits drug tests for some White House workers



WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is allowing random drug tests for some people with access to the White House complex despite arguments that government is trampling privacy rights in pursuit of a drug-free workforce.

The justices, acting without comment Monday, let stand a federal appeals court ruling that called the drug tests a valid tool for protecting the president and vice president.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have allowed drug testing of government employees with certain types of jobs, but the appeals court ruling was based instead on where government employees' jobs take them.

Only public employees -- not the millions of Americans who work for private employers -- can raise constitutional challenges to employment-related drug testing. The Constitution protects individuals' rights from government action only.

"We had high hopes for this case," said Benjamin Boyd, a lawyer for two Office of Management and Budget employees who had challenged their agency's drug-testing policy. "We think privacy is being sacrificed unnecessarily," he said.

Financial economists Arthur Stigile and Ellen Balis are assigned to the New Executive Office Building, a few blocks from the White House, but occasionally attend meetings at the Old Executive Office Building within the secured White House area.

The vice president has an office there, and the president frequently visits the building.

The nation's highest court had been urged to rule that administering the tests without any "probable cause" to suspect drug use violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.

"Taken to its logical end, the (appeals court) decision would permit random testing of virtually any federal employee in the Washington area, since almost any such employee may have access to buildings frequented by members of the Cabinet, members of Congress or justices of this court, whose safety are important governmental interests," the two OMB employees' appeal said.

They said the lower court's ruling "massively expands the narrow exceptions" to the Fourth Amendment's requirement that a search be based on probable cause to suspect a crime.

The two already were Office of Management and Budget employees when a drug-free workplace plan affecting them was established in 1988.

When notified in 1996 that he had been selected for testing, Stigile immediately challenged the testing program in court. Balis, who had not been selected for testing, joined him in the lawsuit.

A federal judge invalidated the random testing policy but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed that ruling last April.

Lawyers for Stigile and Balis said the April ruling was built on "unsupported speculation" that, without random testing, some OMB employees would use illegal drugs and their drug use would lead to an attempt to harm the president or vice president.

Clinton administration lawyers urged the court to reject the appeal.

"Agencies charged with protecting the president and vice president are permitted, within reason, to anticipate novel security threats and to act to avert them," government lawyers argued. "The government is entitled to address such threats before they materialize into actual assassination attempts."

In two 1989 decisions, the Supreme Court condoned drug tests for railroad workers whose jobs affect public safety and for U.S. Customs agents who enforce anti-drug laws.

The court in 1995 upheld drug testing of student athletes in public schools because of the national concern over drug use by youngsters. But last April, the justices ruled in a Georgia case that states and local governments cannot require candidates for public office to pass a drug test.

In other matters Monday, the court:

  • Rejected an appeal by a New York woman who contends she is an "innocent spouse" who should not have to pay the $650,000 in back taxes the Internal Revenue Service says she and her ex-husband owe.
  • Rejected Missouri's attempt to end its $100 million-a-year obligation in the racial desegregation of St. Louis public schools.
  • Agreed to use a South Carolina dockworker's case to decide whether employees can sue over alleged discrimination when their union contract requires disputes be resolved in arbitration.