Monday, January 6, 2014

Atlantic's Cohen says Florida will 'never be able to rationalize' drug testing of welfare recipients

Today at The Atlantic contributing editor Andrew Cohen offers this worthwhile examination of the recent ruling striking down Florida's mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, which CRL&P noted here. Cohen writes:

Last Tuesday, on New Year's Eve, a federal judge, a nominee of President George W. Bush, struck down for good a dubious Florida law that required state welfare recipients to submit to (and pay for) drug testing as a precondition of receiving benefits. The ruling was not a surprise—the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals presaged it in a February 2013 injunction ruling in this case—but it was nonetheless bracing: a good, old-fashioned screed against a very bad idea.


The 30-page order by U.S. District Judge Mary Stenson Scriven, in Orlando, is an easy read and comes down to an essential point: The government may not condition the receipt of a benefit upon the violation of a constitutional right. What is remarkable is not that every federal judge who has ever looked at this law has found it unconstitutional but that Florida officials—led by the indefatigable Governor Rick Scott—defended it as long as they have.


What was Florida's argument in defense of the statute, passed with overwhelming support by Republicans in May 2011? Both before and after the 11th Circuit ruling last year, the rationale remained the same. The mandatory drug tests were necessary (and legally justified) for all candidates under the "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" program to: 1) ensure TANF participants’ job readiness; (2) ensure the TANF program meets its child-welfare and family-stability goals; and (3) ensure that public funds are used for their intended purposes and not to undermine public health.


Judge Scrivens rejected these arguments as factually and legally insufficient when she granted a preliminary injunction temporarily halting the law late in 2011. Then the 11th Circuit, one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the nation, did, too.

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