The Justice Department's testing of new employees for illegal drug use was upheld Friday in an appellate court ruling that the dissenting judge said could allow checks of all federal job seekers.

The 2-1 ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a program under which people tentatively hired by the Justice Department must provide a urine sample that is tested for illegal drugs.The split panel held that the Justice Department's interest in screening illegal drug users from the people it hires outweighed individual applicants' constitutional rights to privacy.

"Drug use among its employees would undermine the department's credibility as the nation's leading law enforcement agency," Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote in the opinion joined by Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman.

"To the Justice Department, like any other employer, an applicant is a stranger," the court said. Drug testing is just another tool, like interviews or background checks, to gather information about an applicant's "suitability for employment."

The ruling on the issue of job applicant drug testing by the federal government was the first by a federal appellate court.

The opinion by Randolph, appointed last year to the court by President Bush, drew a sharp dissent from another recent Bush appointee, Circuit Judge Karen Henderson.

"Simply applying for federal employment is too slim a reed to support mandatory drug testing," wrote Henderson.

Past court decisions have allowed testing of federal employees based on a "reasonable suspicion" of illegal drug use.

Other rulings also allow random testing of employees whose impairment by illegal drug use might endanger public safety or national security.

But Henderson said the other judges were ignoring a requirement of these rulings that "the testing be reasonably calculated to avert some harm that a drug-impaired employee is likely to cause."

"Taken to its logical end, the majority's reasoning sanctions a blanket requirement for all federal job applicants," she said. She noted that the applicant who challenged the requirement, attorney Carl Willner, now works in a division of the Justice Department not subject to random drug testing.

The same court in 1989 restricted random drug testing at the Justice Department to employees who handled classified information or who were involved in prosecuting drug cases.