Federal Appeals Court Hears Justice Department Suit Against Oregon Assisted Suicide Law
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday heard an appeal by the Department of Justice challenging Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which allows assisted suicide, the Los Angeles Times reports (Gorman, Los Angeles Times, 5/8). Last year, the DOJ filed its appeal after U.S. District Judge Robert Jones ruled that the federal government does not have the authority to interfere with Oregon's law. Previous attempts by the DOJ to overturn the law have failed in the courts. Under the Death With Dignity Act -- the only such law in the nation -- physicians may prescribe, but not administer, lethal prescription drugs to a terminally ill patient after two physicians agree that the patient has less than six months to live, has decided to die voluntarily and can make health care decisions (California Healthline, 9/24/02). In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that states could decide whether to allow assisted suicide. Attorney General John Ashcroft now is arguing that the law violates the federal Controlled Substances Act (McCall, AP/Boston Globe, 5/8). Gregory Katsas, deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ, argued before the appellate panel that the drugs physicians prescribe under the assisted suicide law are regulated by the act, which restricts their use to medical purposes, and assisted suicide "is not such a purpose." However, the Oregon attorney general's office and supporters of the law said that the Controlled Substances Act was intended to fight drug abuse and trafficking, and it has "nothing to do with legitimate medical practices," Reuters/Newark Star-Ledger reports. Proponents also noted that medical practices have traditionally been regulated by the states (Carson, Reuters/Newark Star-Ledger, 5/8).
Judge Donald Lay highlighted former Attorney General Janet Reno's 1998 decision that the Oregon law does not violate the Controlled Substances Act; the courts "normally give more deference to government agencies when their positions have been consistent over long periods," the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/8). Judges on the 9th Circuit panel said they would have a decision "as soon as [they] can," although attorneys from both sides do not expect a ruling for months, according to the Reuters/Star-Ledger (Reuters/Newark Star-Ledger, 5/8). Any ruling likely will be appealed to the full 9th Circuit or directly to the Supreme Court, according to the Times. Since 1998, 129 terminally ill Oregon patients have committed suicide under the law (Los Angeles Times, 5/8). NPR's "Morning Edition" today reported on the debates (Fogarty, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/8). The full segment is available in RealPlayer at online.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.