Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Suicide Law
By GINA HOLLAND
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; 12:04 PM
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court upheld Oregon's
one-of-a-kind physician-assisted suicide law Tuesday,
rejecting a Bush administration attempt to punish
doctors who help terminally ill patients die.
Justices, on a 6-3 vote, said that a federal drug law
does not override the 1997 Oregon law used to end the
lives of more than 200 seriously ill people. New Chief
Justice John Roberts backed the Bush administration,
dissenting for the first time.
The administration improperly tried to use a drug law
to punish Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of
prescription medicines, the court majority said.
"Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to
alter the federal-state balance," Justice Anthony M.
Kennedy wrote for himself, retiring Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.
Kennedy is expected to become a more influential swing
voter after O'Connor's departure. He is a moderate
conservative who sometimes joins the liberal wing of
the court in cases involving such things as gay rights
and capital punishment.
The ruling was a reprimand to former Attorney General
John Ashcroft, who in 2001 said that doctor-assisted
suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that
Oregon physicians would be punished for helping people
die under the law.
Kennedy said the "authority claimed by the attorney
general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous
with the statutory purposes and design."
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself, Roberts
and Justice Clarence Thomas, said that federal
officials have the power to regulate the doling out of
"If the term `legitimate medical purpose' has any
meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs
to produce death," he wrote.
Scalia said the court's ruling "is perhaps driven by a
feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none
of the federal government's business. It is easy to
sympathize with that position."
Oregon's law covers only extremely sick people _ those
with incurable diseases, whom at least two doctors
agree have six months or less to live and are of sound
The ruling backed a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, which said Ashcroft's "unilateral
attempt to regulate general medical practices
historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes
with the democratic debate about physician-assisted
Ashcroft had brought the case to the Supreme Court on
the day his resignation was announced by the White
House in 2004. The Justice Department has continued
the case, under the leadership of his successor,
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The court's ruling was not a final say on federal
authority to override state doctor-assisted suicide
laws _ only a declaration that the current federal
scheme did not permit that. However, it could still
have ramifications outside of Oregon.
"This is a disappointing decision that is likely to
result in a troubling movement by states to pass their
own assisted suicide laws," said Jay Sekulow, chief
counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice,
which backed the administration.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and a supporter of the law,
said the ruling "has stopped, for now, the
administration's attempts to wrest control of
decisions rightfully left to the states and
Thomas wrote his own dissent as well, to complain that
the court's reasoning was puzzling. Roberts did not
Justices have dealt with end-of-life cases before. In
1990, the Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill
people may refuse treatment that would otherwise keep
them alive. Then, justices in 1997 unanimously ruled
that people have no constitutional right to die,
upholding state bans on physician-assisted suicide.
That opinion, by then-Chief Justice William H.
Rehnquist, said individual states could decide to
allow the practice.
Roberts strongly hinted in October when the case was
argued that he would back the administration. O'Connor
had seemed ready to support Oregon's law, but her vote
would not have counted if the ruling was handed down
after she left the court.
The case is Gonzales v. Oregon, 04-623.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/