[Mb-civic] Justices Uphold Oregon Assisted-Suicide Law - Washington
swiggard at comcast.net
Wed Jan 18 02:43:49 PST 2006
Justices Uphold Oregon Assisted-Suicide Law
In a Blow to Administration, Ruling Paves Way for Other States to Follow
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006; A01
The Supreme Court upheld Oregon's law on physician-assisted suicide
yesterday, ruling that the Justice Department may not punish doctors who
help terminally ill patients end their lives.
By a vote of 6 to 3, the court ruled that Attorney General John D.
Ashcroft exceeded his legal authority in 2001 when he threatened to
prohibit doctors from prescribing federally controlled drugs if they
authorized lethal doses of the medications under the Oregon Death With
The ruling struck down one of the administration's signature policies
regarding what President Bush calls the "culture of life" and lifts the
last legal cloud over the state's law, which is unique in the nation. It
also frees other states to follow in Oregon's footsteps, unless Congress
acts to the contrary.
It is unclear how many states would join Oregon; assisted-suicide
initiatives have not fared well in recent years. Still, coming a year
after efforts by Republicans in Congress to block the removal of a
feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, and after Chief Justice John G. Roberts
Jr. and Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. faced questions from
the Senate about their views on end-of-life issues, the court's decision
could energize the political debate. Roberts dissented from the ruling,
joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Conservatives reacted angrily to the ruling. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel
of the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit litigation group
founded by Pat Robertson, called it "a disturbing and dangerous decision
that can only lessen the value of protecting human life."
But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called it "a significant victory for
Oregon's voters," who twice approved the Death With Dignity Act in
statewide referendums. Looking ahead to possible Republican efforts to
change federal law, Wyden said, "I will fight tooth and nail any
congressional attempts to overturn this court ruling."
A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll released Jan. 5
found that 46 percent of Americans support a right to assisted suicide
while 45 percent oppose it. Assisting suicide is a crime in 44 states,
including Maryland, as well as the District. It is a civil offense in
Virginia. In three states -- North Carolina, Utah and Wyoming -- the law
neither prohibits nor permits assisted suicide. Ohio's Supreme Court has
decriminalized assisted suicide, but state regulations do not condone it.
State referendums supporting assisted suicide have failed in California,
Maine, Michigan and Washington. A bill failed in Maryland in 1995 and
1996. A measure modeled on Oregon's passed two committees in the
California Assembly last year but then fizzled from lack of support. An
author of the bill, Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D), said she was "very
optimistic" that the ruling would help prospects for the bill this year.
The Supreme Court was aware of the strong feelings on both sides -- and
portrayed itself as above them.
Although frequently described as a "right to die" case, Gonzales v.
Oregon , No. 04-623, was not, strictly speaking, about the
constitutional right to end one's own life. The court has already ruled,
in 1997, that there is no such right and did not revisit that holding
Instead, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in the majority opinion that
the question was whether Ashcroft acted in accordance with the
Controlled Substances Act when he issued an "interpretive rule" in 2001,
declaring that assisting suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose"
for which federally regulated drugs may lawfully be prescribed.
Ashcroft's successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, has continued the policy.
Kennedy acknowledged that the case was partly a product of the national
debate over end-of-life issues but noted that the "resolution requires
an inquiry familiar to the courts: interpreting a federal statute to
determine whether Executive action is authorized by, or otherwise
consistent with, the enactment."
The answer, Kennedy wrote, is no: Recasting the issue as involving the
states' right to regulate medical practice rather than a patient's right
to die, he concluded that Ashcroft had made an overly broad
interpretation of the 35-year-old federal Controlled Substances Act
(CSA). Kennedy wrote that the law was meant to stop drug abuse and drug
trafficking, not to replace the states' traditional role in deciding
what state-licensed doctors may and may not do within state borders.
"The Government, in the end, maintains that the prescription requirement
[of the CSA] delegates to a single Executive officer the power to effect
a radical shift of authority from the states to the Federal Government
to define general standards of medical practice in every locality,"
Kennedy wrote. "The text and structure of the CSA show that Congress did
not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance and
the congressional role in maintaining it."
Kennedy was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor,
David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
In dissent, Scalia argued that Ashcroft had acted well within his legal
powers. "If the term legitimate medical purpose has any meaning, it
surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death," Scalia wrote.
He was joined by Roberts -- dissenting for the first time on the court
-- and Thomas. Thomas wrote separately to argue that the court's ruling
was inconsistent with its opinion last year upholding a federal override
of a California law legalizing the medical use of marijuana.
The Oregon Death With Dignity Act was adopted by the state's voters in
1994. It permits doctors to prescribe, but not administer, a lethal dose
to a terminally ill patient who requests it, provided that the patient
is mentally competent.
State voters rejected a challenge to the law in 1997; two efforts to
override it in Congress, supported by Ashcroft when he was a senator,
failed. President Bill Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, declined
to act against the law.
From 1997 to 2004, 208 people ended their lives by physician-assisted
suicide in Oregon.
After Ashcroft issued his declaration as attorney general, a federal
district court in Oregon upheld the law, as did the San Francisco-based
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The Bush administration
appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed last year to take the case.
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