Supreme Court To Hear Bush Administration Appeal in Physician-Assisted Suicide Law Case
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to a request by the Bush administration to hear an appeal in a case related to the 1997 Death With Dignity Act, an Oregon law that allows physician-assisted suicide, the Washington Post reports (Lane, Washington Post, 2/23). Under the Oregon law -- the only such law in the nation -- physicians can 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.
In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive that said assisted suicide serves "no legitimate medical purpose" and warned physicians who prescribe controlled narcotics to assist in patient suicides under the Oregon law that they could face criminal penalties and license suspension or revocation. Ashcroft argued that the law violates the federal Controlled Substances Act.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in 2003 ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to overturn the law -- a decision upheld in May 2004 by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision, the panel ruled that states, not the federal government, have the authority to regulate the practice of medicine and that the "text, purpose and history" of the Controlled Substances Act does not authorize DOJ to override the law. Judge Richard Tallman wrote in the decision that Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act to help prevent abuse, not define proper medical treatment (California Healthline, 5/27/04).
On Nov. 10, 2004, Ashcroft asked the Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit Court decision (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 2/23). In the case -- named Gonzales v. Oregon, after current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- the Supreme Court will consider the issue of assisted suicide for the first time since 1997. In 1997, the court ruled that terminally ill patients have no constitutional right to assisted suicide but indicated that states, rather than the federal government, could determine the legality of the practice (Biskupic, USA Today, 2/23).
The Bush administration appeal involves the "clash" between the authority of the federal government to regulate prescription drugs and the authority of states to regulate the practice of medicine within their borders, the Post reports (Washington Post, 2/23).
In the appeal, Gonzales argues that the 9th Circuit Court decision "stands the proper relationship between the federal and state governments under the Constitution on its head" and asks the Supreme Court "to correct this serious misconception of the relative powers of state and federal governments." At issue, according to the Bush administration, is "who gets to decide" -- the "attorney general, pursuant to a uniform national standard, or each of the 50 states, according to 50 different views regarding the proper use of controlled substances" (Greenhouse, New York Times, 2/23).
Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to begin in October (Taylor, Washington Times, 2/23). A decision in the case is expected by spring 2006 (Henderson, Knight Ridder/Miami Herald, 2/22).
According to the AP/Las Vegas Sun, Gonzales "will be facing an uphill legal battle" (Tucker, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 2/23). The argument that the federal government has the authority to determine the legality of assisted suicide might "be a hard sell" to a Supreme Court that "has been notably deferential to the states" and has indicated that states have the authority in a previous decision on the issue, the New York Times reports.
According to the New York Times, the case "is likely to galvanize debate over assisted suicide, much as the 1997 case did" (New York Times, 2/23).
According to the Christian Science Monitor, the decision in the case "could determine" whether laws to allow assisted suicide "are enacted in other parts of the country" (Knickerbocker, Christian Science Monitor, 2/23). Legislation based on the Oregon law is under consideration in the California and Vermont legislatures (Los Angeles Times, 2/23).
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) said that he was "disappointed" by the Supreme Court decision to hear the Bush administration appeal, adding, "The people of Oregon have approved Oregon's Death With Dignity Act not once, but twice, and the lower courts have upheld Oregon's law not once, but twice" (Knight Ridder/Miami Herald, 2/22).
Eli Stutsman, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said, "We're dealing with a federal statute that empowers the Drug Enforcement Administration to prohibit illicit drug use, trafficking and diversion -- but that is not what the Death With Dignity Act is about" (Washington Post, 2/23). He said, "This is an opportunity for the Death With Dignity law to win at the highest level, to finally be validated on a national stage. We are confident that states' rights and the rights of the terminally ill will carry the day."
Kathryn Tucker -- an attorney for Compassion and Choices, which sponsored the Oregon law -- said, "Many patients are comforted by having the mediation that gives them the choice to hasten their death, but it is used rarely" (Los Angeles Times, 2/23). According to Oregon officials, 171 patients used assisted suicide to end their lives between 1998, when the law took effect, and the end of 2003 (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/23).
James Bopp, president of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, on Tuesday announced that he would lead "an all-out legal effort in support of the Ashcroft directive" (New York Times, 2/23).
Denise Burke, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Life, said, "A state may have power to exempt physicians from liability under state law, but it cannot exempt physicians from federal law. Lower court rulings, to the contrary, appear to go out of their way to override traditional federal drug controls. Killing, either by consent or not, is never therapeutic" (Knight Ridder/Miami Herald, 2/22).
Kenneth Stevens -- a spokesperson for Physicians for Compassionate Care, which opposes assisted suicide -- said of the Oregon law, "We have many instances where there has been misuse of assisted suicide, where patients who are depressed have received the lethal medications" (Tucker, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 2/23).
Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said, "People with disabilities are very much in danger from assisted suicide." She also said that the "profit motives of the cost-cutting managed care industry" make abuses of assisted suicide likely (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/23).
David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said, "The court has an opportunity to ensure that patients receive truly compassionate care and pain relief by limiting physicians' use of narcotics for healing -- not death" (Los Angeles Times, 2/23).