IMAGE: SUPPORTERS OF OREGON LAW
Karen Bleier  /  AFP - Getty Images file
The Oregon case drew supporters of the physician-assisted suicide law when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Oct. 5.
updated 1/18/2006 1:25:18 AM ET 2006-01-18T06:25:18

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 the 1997 Oregon law used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people trumped federal authority to regulate doctors. New Chief Justice John Roberts backed the Bush administration, dissenting with the majority for the first time.

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.”

“Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance,” Justice Anthony 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.

Ashcroft 'beyond his expertise'
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.”

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’s dissenting view
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.

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.

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

Reaction from sidelines
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., 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.”

Background to the issue
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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