January 17, 2006

Court rules govt. can’t stop Oregon suicide law

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration overstepped
its authority when it barred doctors from helping terminally
ill patients die in the only state that allows
physician-assisted suicide, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on

In a stinging defeat for the administration, the high court
ruled by a 6-3 vote that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft
wrongly interpreted a federal law in 2001 to bar distribution
of controlled drugs to assist suicides, disregarding the Oregon
law authorizing it.

"It is difficult to defend the attorney general's
declaration that the statute impliedly criminalizes
physician-assisted suicide," Justice Anthony Kennedy said for
the court majority.

The court's most conservative members -- Justices Antonin
Scalia and Clarence Thomas and new Chief Justice John Roberts,
who was appointed by President George W. Bush -- dissented.
Roberts, in his first dissent, did not write an opinion.

The Oregon law, called the Death with Dignity Act, was
twice approved by the state's voters. The only state law in the
nation allowing doctor-assisted suicide, it has been used by
more than 200 people since it took effect in 1997.

Under Oregon law, terminally ill patients who want to end
their lives with a physician's help must get a certification
from two doctors stating they are of sound mind and have fewer
than six months to live. A prescription for lethal drugs is
then written by the doctor, and the patients administer the
drugs themselves.

Ashcroft's directive declared that assisting suicide was
not "a legitimate medical purpose" under the Controlled
Substances Act of 1970 and that prescribing federally
controlled drugs for that purpose was against the federal law.

Oregon challenged Ashcroft's directive, and the Supreme
Court's ruling marked the third time the administration has
lost, following similar defeats before a federal judge and a
U.S. appeals court.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the U.S. Justice
Department was reviewing the ruling.


"We are disappointed at the decision. The president remains
fully committed to building a culture of life ... that is built
on valuing life at all stages," McClellan said.

Both sides predicted the decision likely will lead to more
states adopting assisted suicide laws. Lawmakers sponsoring a
similar law in California said the ruling gave them a major

Supporters of the state law, including Sen. Ron Wyden, a
Democrat from Oregon, praised the ruling. He vowed to fight any
congressional attempts to overturn the decision.

"The court's decision has stopped, for now, the
administration's attempts to wrest control of decisions
rightfully left to the states and individuals," Wyden said.

Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity
National Center, called the ruling "a historic milestone that
will protect the people's rights as patients."

Ashcroft reversed the policy adopted by his predecessor
Janet Reno, who was attorney general during the Clinton
administration. Conservative lawmakers and groups had opposed
Reno's decision.

Kennedy, joined by another moderate conservative, retiring
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and the court's four most liberal
members, said the authority claimed by Ashcroft was "both
beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory
purposes and design."

He said in the 28-page opinion that federal law regulated
medical practice only to bar doctors from using their
prescription-writing powers as a way to engage in illicit drug
dealing and trafficking.

Scalia said in his dissent that he would uphold the
administration's position. "If the term 'legitimate medical
purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription
of drugs to produce death," he said.