A federal appeals court ruling against Florida’s drug testing of welfare applicants has dealt a blow to a similar Georgia law.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, in a ruling last week, held that Florida had not demonstrated a “substantial special need” that justified suspending the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.
The court, in a 38-page opinion, upheld a judge’s temporary ban on enforcing the Florida law.
The law is not officially dead. Florida could appeal the 11th Circuit decision and try to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the temporary ban. Otherwise, the case will return to a federal district judge, who will determine whether the law is constitutional.
But with two unfavorable rulings already, the Florida law’s prospects do not appear bright.
The Georgia Legislature last year approved a similar bill for drug testing of applicants for welfare. But Gov. Nathan Deal held off on implementing it, pending the appeals court ruling on the Florida law.
What’s next for the Georgia law is unclear now that the Florida law has suffered another legal setback.
State Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), who helped spearhead the drug testing effort in Georgia, said last year that he was confident the bill would be upheld.
Albers said Monday he was disappointed in the court ruling on the Florida law.
“Our legislation is similar, but [the similarity is] not exact,’’ he told GHN in a statement. “I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the lower court decision and equal the playing field for those who work in public safety, the military and private employers with those receiving a free government benefit.’’
Deal’s spokesman could not be reached for comment Monday on the ruling. A spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens declined comment.
Last year, Albers argued for the drug testing requirement as a matter of fairness because applicants for employment often have to get drug tests. He noted that he had taken several such drug tests himself. “This is a good government bill,’’ he declared.
Gerry Weber, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, told GHN on Monday that absent a reversal of the court’s decision, the ruling renders the Georgia law “dead in the water.’’
Drug testing of welfare applicants “subjects poor people to suspicion of drug use just because they are poor,” Weber said.
Critics say tests pointless
Florida Gov. Rick Scott called the ruling “disturbing’’ last week and vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the well-being of Florida families,” Scott said in a statement.
Proponents have said the Georgia law would save the government money on welfare payments because many applicants will fail the drug test, while others will decline to apply because of the drug-testing requirement.
Florida officials had argued that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits are intended to ensure family stability and child welfare, and that drug use subverts those goals.
Only Florida and Georgia have laws requiring drug testing of all welfare applicants, the Wall Street Journal reported. Arizona, Missouri, Utah and Oklahoma permit testing of specific applicants if they are suspected of drug use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Judge Rosemary Barkett, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, wrote the decision, while Judge James R. Hall and Judge Kent A. Jordan, both appointees of President George W. Bush, joined her in the ruling.
“As the district court found, the state failed to offer any factual support or to present any empirical evidence of a ‘concrete danger’ of illegal drug use within Florida’s TANF population,’’ Barkett wrote.
Neil Kaltenecker of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, who testified against the bill before state lawmakers, said last year that the cost to implement the law in Florida exceeded the amount that was gained by denying benefits to people who tested positive.
Kaltenecker said no empirical evidence had ever been presented that drug use among welfare recipients was worse than among the general population.
On Monday, she told GHN that “as we await Georgia’s official next step relative to HB 861 and drug-testing TANF recipients, we would like legislators and policymakers to know that we support a responsible, public health approach to substance abuse in Georgia that makes a good business case and encourages our youth and families to remain drug-free.’