Georgia leaders face vexing questions over tough drug-testing law

A Georgia law requiring drug tests for some welfare recipients, considered the toughest such law in the nation, was thrown into limbo this week after an Atlanta federal appeals court ruling struck down related legislation in Florida.

The court ruled that Florida’s attempt to require all recipients of poverty aid to undergo drug tests was unconstitutional, putting Georgia leaders in a bind even though this state’s law was different from its neighbor’s version.

Now state leaders, who delayed enforcing Georgia’s legislation until the court decided Florida’s case, face the tough question of whether to implement the law. They face a likely legal reprisal from the bill’s critics if they do so — and pressure from the proposal’s conservative backers if they don’t.

“It’s time now to enforce it. It was passed by both bodies of the Legislature and signed by the governor,” said state Rep. Greg Morris, the Vidalia Republican who introduced the bill. “I couldn’t imagine a reason not to move forward.”

Gerry Weber, a senior counsel with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said it’s time to abandon the law. “I think they have wisely taken a wait-and-see approach,” Weber said of the state’s leaders, “and now they’ve seen.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office on Thursday declined to comment. Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office is charged with defending the law in court, said he was still reviewing the legislation.

Florida’s law called for drug-testing all applicants for welfare, which drew an immediate legal challenge from civil rights groups. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled Wednesday that the requirement “offends the Fourth Amendment,” which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“We respect the State’s overarching and laudable desire to promote work, protect families, and conserve resources,” Judge Stanley Marcus wrote in the 54-page ruling. “But, above all else, we must enforce the Constitution and the limits it places on government.”

Georgia once tried a similar strategy but backed off when it saw Florida’s law tied up in court.

Morris tried a new tack this year, borrowing wording from a 2013 Kansas law that allows state workers to test welfare recipients if there’s a suspicion of drug use, such as the recipient’s “demeanor,” or if they’ve ever applied for a job in an industry that uses drug tests.

The costs of enacting the law are unknown. Unlike some other states that have adopted similar laws, state analysts never crunched the numbers on how much it would cost or save the state. Likely costs include the administration of the testing program and the legal fees from a direct court challenge.

The tests themselves would be paid for by the welfare applicants, even if they test drug-free; Georgia is the only state with such a requirement.

The measure passed both chambers, and Deal, facing a primary challenge from a tea party candidate, quickly signed it into law. But his office immediately delayed the implementation until the appeals court ruled on the Florida law, which had already been blocked by a lower court. At the time, Deal’s aides said they wanted to await guidance from the courts rather than risk another legal battle.

A separate part of Georgia’s law, which would have applied drug tests to food stamp recipients, has already been halted by the state attorney general. The part of the law that applies to Georgia’s 16,000 welfare recipients has not.

Morris doesn’t believe the law will lose taxpayers money in the end, though he can’t say for sure. Regardless, he said, it’s the right thing to do.

“We don’t know until we implement the law,” Morris said. “Just simply on the face of it, anybody who is using taxpayers’ money to supplement a drug habit is wrong. It is a moral problem.”

Weber, the civil liberties lawyer, may challenge Georgia’s law. He said Morris’ legal patch was “a very, very poor attempt at reasonable suspicion.” Moreover, he said, even if it passed muster, courts still have set higher standards, requiring search warrants, when it comes to government-mandated medical tests.

“So we’re hoping that they look at the implications of this decision and see that it says this is not a path they should travel under, or else they wind up with more litigation and more taxpayer expense,” Weber said.

Morris is bracing for a long legal fight.

“We were very careful through the whole session to craft a bill so that it would be constitutional,” he said. “I would expect a court challenge, and I expect and hope that it will be unsuccessful.”

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