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A judge struck down a controversial Florida law mandating drug testing for welfare recipients on Dec. 31, 2013.
Governor Rick Scott is vowing to appeal the decision.
Scott had made drug testing part of his platform when he ran for governor, and its passage was his signature legislation. He is running for re-election this year.
Mary Ellen Klas, the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Miami Herald, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss what the judge’s ruling means for Scott’s re-election bid and for politics in Florida.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
So, 2014 begins with an historically cold storm. 2013 did not end all that well for Florida Governor Rick Scott. On the last day of the year, a judge declared one of Scott's signature laws - a requirement that welfare recipients be drug-tested - unconstitutional.
Governor Scott has vowed to appeal, as he plans his re-election bid, possibly against former Governor and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. Mary Ellen Klas is the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief. And Mary Ellen, we understand the case was filed on behalf of a 30-year-old single dad, former Marine, raising a child by himself, who refused to take the test. On what grounds?
MARY ELLEN KLAS: Well, his argument was that because he has never used illegal drugs, and there was no reason for them to suspect he had, that he shouldn't have to be subjected to this mandatory drug test just for him to obtain welfare benefits.
YOUNG: Well, we know that courts have allowed drug testing when there's no grounds for the test when public safety is at risk - somebody, you know, who works for the railroad, let's say, or is an officer. But what did the court say about this testing?
KLAS: Well, their conclusion was that basically this was warrantless, suspicion-less drug testing and a violation of the Fourth Amendment and was unconstitutional. They just said it was broad brushed, and should not be applied in this way.
And Florida actually had a little - a brief time in which this law took effect. When the law was passed in March of 2011, it was in effect for about three months before it was challenged by the ACLU. And during that time, they were able to kind of get a sampling of how many people would have to be forced into taking the test, and how many were in violation of it.
And the conclusion was that about 108 of the 4,000 people who were tested - which is about 2.6 percent - were found to have been using narcotics. And that, when you look at the state population, that is about a fourth of what the general population is presumed to be using drugs.
YOUNG: That was a fascinating statistic to us. So it was 2.6 percent for the welfare recipients who were taking tests, but it jumped up to 8.7 percent for the general population in a 2009 survey. That's quite something. But the judge didn't even look at those stats. The judge, Mary Scriven, went even further. She agreed with other, lower courts who said there is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there's a concrete danger that impoverished people are prone to drug use.
So she knocked out the very concept behind the testing. What does Governor Scott say?
KLAS: Well, the governor continues to kind of hold onto the position that he wants to pursue this. So he has indicated he's going to challenge it and appeal it at the appellate court level in federal court, and perhaps even go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, because this is the third time the court has ruled against him on this idea.
And I think he just is unwavering. His argument is if someone is a beneficiary of the state welfare, they should not be using drugs. And he basically said we will continue to fight for children who deserve to live in drug-free homes by appealing this decision.
This is a position that he ran on when he ran for governor back in 2010. It's part of a two-pronged effort, in fact. He has required that many state employees and even job applicants in many positions of government will submit to mandatory drug testing. Now, that hasn't even seen the light of day. That was challenged immediately and is also on hold.
But it was a campaign promise. He's running in - again - to another very competitive campaign year, and I think he is going to pursue this for, you know, to appeal to the base. The other thing is that this issue tests pretty well, and Florida's governor's races are always determined by the independent vote. And when this was polled, last I saw, in 2011, about 71 percent of voters approved state testing welfare recipients for drugs.
YOUNG: Well, Rick Scott is a former health care executive. He has pledged to spend $100 million on his reelection campaign, and he might face former Governor Crist. What's the anticipation in Florida of that potential faceoff?
KLAS: It's going to be probably one of the most aggressive, negative and expensive races in Florida history. It's fascinating, because we've got somebody who had the very same job running against the guy who replaced him, and he switched parties. And the other thing is that Charlie Crist knows where all the Republican skeletons are.
He can come out with all kinds of negative stuff on the Republicans. We're expecting a book out from him in February. But the flipside is Rick Scott has been in there, and he's seen everything that Charlie Crist did and can come out and say: Look at how things were when he was governor. His last two years were in - the state was in the throes of the recession. And so Rick Scott gets to say, look. I've improved it.
YOUNG: Well, and one last question. Governor Crist's downfall for some of the voters was that he supported President Obama on stimulus money, and he took it. But can't he point to some of these great unemployment numbers in Florida as part of the Democratic president's plan?
KLAS: I think that's definitely going to be part of his strategy. He's got a difficult balance. If Barack Obama's popularity continues to be low, we're not going to see much of him in Florida. But on the other hand, he is going to be able to say it's these policies that brought the nation back, and, you know, I think the credit belongs at the federal level, and not to Rick Scott.
So, Charlie Crist will have that argument in his toolbox, but then he's also got to deal with the whole question of the Affordable Care Act and its unpopularity. So it's going to be crazy.
YOUNG: Which, as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Miami Herald, means much to chew on for you, Mary Ellen Klas. Thanks so much.
KLAS: Thank you.
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MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
And, before the break, this update, also about the Affordable Care Act. You'll remember just before New Year's Eve, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blocked the portion of the new health act that requires organizations with religious affiliations to sign contraception coverage over to insurers. Well, the group of nuns that brought the suit found even that compromise is objectionable. And today, the Justice Department responded, calling on Justice Sotomayor to overturn her own ban, saying the government is holding to the thinking that these groups have the option of turning that coverage over to insurers. It's not known when Sotomayor will make another decision. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.