Veronia School District v. Acton

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Antonin Scalia (b. 1986)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933)


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515 U.S. 646 (1995), argued 28 Mar. 1995, decided 26 June 1995 by vote of 6 to 3; Scalia for the Court, Ginsburg concurring, O’Connor in dissent. Veronia was yet another example of the ways in which the war on drugs raised seminal questions about the scope of individual liberty and the extent of the government's authority to limit that liberty in the name of reduced drug use. In this instance, a school district in a small (population three thousand) Oregon logging town. Veronia, decided on a new way to attack the problem of student drug use after a host of other approaches proved unsatisfactory. Faced with what they believed was rampant use by students, especially athletes, of drugs, the Veronia School Board in 1989 approved a program of random drug testing of all athletes. The school board reasoned that if drug use could be cut among the athletes and if they could become wholesome role models, then drug use as a whole would decline. At the start of each season, the new rule provided, school authorities would collect and analyze urine samples from middle and high school athletes to see if drugs were present. Throughout the remainder of the season all athletes would be susceptible to testing at random intervals. The school board sent the samples to a private firm, whose analysis was valid 99.4 percent of the time. Any athlete that refused to take the test was prohibited from participating in athletics for two years, while those who tested positive had to agree to drug counseling and a period of suspension from organized athletics.

James Acton was a twelve-year-old seventh grader in 1991 who wanted to try out for the football team. His parents, however, refused to sign a urinalysis consent form. There was never any suspicion that James, a model student, either had used or was using drugs. His parents objected to the policy as an interference with his and their privacy and, in essence, an unreasonable search of his body prohibited by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. They insisted that the responsibility for drug testing rested with them, not the school board.

The Supreme Court and lower federal courts had previously dealt with issues of random drug testing for workers in areas vital to safety, such as railroads, and national security. Never before had the high court entertained the questions of whether schools might engage in such testing and whether such testing might be random. After the federal district court in Oregon dismissed the Actons’ suit, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit proceeded to reverse this decision and strike down the drug testing program as an unjustified violation of the privacy of students not suspected of drug use and an unreasonable search precluded by the Fourth Amendment. That Ninth Circuit opinion, however, conflicted with a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1988 that permitted random drug testing in the schools of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The Supreme Court then stepped in to settle, for the first time, the constitutional law of drug testing in schools.


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