Jan 17, 11:08 AM EST
Supreme Court upholds Oregon suicide law
By GINA HOLLAND Associated Press Writer
Read the Opinion (PDF)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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 federal authority to regulate doctors 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 prosecute Oregon doctors who prescribe overdoses, 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.
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.
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