High court upholds Oregon assisted suicide law
Associated Press Jan. 17, 2006 08:30 AM
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting, 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 the 1997 Oregon law used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people trumped federal authority to regulate doctors.
That means the administration improperly tried to use a federal drug law to prosecute Oregon doctors who prescribe overdoses. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to do that in 2001, saying that doctor-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose."
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the federal government does, indeed, have the authority to go after drug dealers and pass rules for health and safety.
But 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.
Tuesday's decision is a reprimand of sorts for Ashcroft. Kennedy said the "authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design."
"The authority desired by the government is inconsistent with the design of the statute in other fundamental respects. The attorney general does not have the sole delegated authority under the (law)," Kennedy wrote for himself, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.
Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.
Scalia, writing the dissent, 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.
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.
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."
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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