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Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Suicide Law

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/17/AR2006011700435.html?referrer=email Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Suicide Law By GINA HOLLAND
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 17, 2006
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      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/17/AR2006011700435.html?referrer=email

      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
      medicine.

      "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
      mind.

      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
      suicide."

      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
      individuals."

      Thomas wrote his own dissent as well, to complain that
      the court's reasoning was puzzling. Roberts did not
      write separately.

      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/
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