Supreme Court opens way for government drug tests Justices turn aside challenge to testing based on site security

March 03, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for the government to require random drug testing of public employees who have access to locations with tight security, such as the White House.

In a brief order, the court turned aside the first case involving drug testing as a requirement for entering a government facility that is generally closed to the public.

At issue was a sweeping order by the Office of Management and Budget, covering all workers with passes to enter the Old Executive Office Building -- a part of the White House complex.

A federal appeals court upheld the testing in April. That court said the testing was justified because the president and vice president work in the White House complex, and steps must be taken to ensure their safety. A worker with a drug problem, the appeals court said, might be a threat, or might take someone along who was a threat.

In past cases in which government drug testing had withstood challenges in the Supreme Court, the testing was aimed at people in agencies where drug abuse was suspected, or at individuals with "sensitive" duties, such as law enforcement.

The OMB order, by contrast, applies to workers regardless of their duties or any sign of a drug problem. It was challenged by two economists who do not work regularly within the White House grounds but do have passes to go there. These economists must still pass through Secret Service checkpoints.

Their appeal to the Supreme Court argued that the appellate court ruling upholding the random tests was so expansive that it could justify drug testing of any federal worker, because they all come and go from buildings where high-level officials work.

In its ruling, the appeals court conceded that public employees have a right to privacy about information concerning their body fluids. But that court concluded that such a right is outweighed by the government's interest in "the safety of the president."

The Supreme Court gave no reasons for rejecting the challenge.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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