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Supreme Court Upholds Law Permitting Assisted Suicide

By Linda Greenhouse


The Supreme Court removed an obstacle on Tuesday to state efforts to authorize physician-assisted suicide, ruling 6-3 that John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, acted without legal authority five years ago when he threw the federal government’s weight against the Death With Dignity Act in Oregon.

With the new chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., in dissent, the decision removed a major obstacle to state initiatives like the one in Oregon, which has the only assisted-suicide law in the country.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion did not say that Congress could not act to block such laws, only that it had not given the attorney general the “extraordinary authority” that Ashcroft claimed when he threatened Oregon doctors who followed the state law with losing their federal prescription-writing privileges.

While the court’s decision was based on standard principles of administrative law, and not on the Constitution, it was clearly influenced by the majority’s view that the regulation of medical practice belonged, as a general matter, to the states. Ashcroft acted contrary to “the background principles of our federal system,” Kennedy said in his 28-page opinion.

The court was clearly aware that it was venturing into “an earnest and profound debate,” as Kennedy noted, quoting from the court’s 1997 opinion in an assisted-suicide case.

In that case, Washington v. Glucksberg, the court said that the Constitution did not convey a right to assistance in dying, but that states were free to experiment with the issue. “The dispute before us,” Kennedy said, “is in part a product of this political and moral debate.”

The decision on Tuesday upheld rulings by two lower federal courts. Ashcroft, while attorney general, appealed to the Supreme Court in November 2004. His successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, embraced his position and pursued the appeal after the justices agreed last February to hear the case.

Roberts did not write a dissenting opinion of his own, instead signing a dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he said it was “perplexing to say the least” to find the court interpreting federal drug law narrowly in this instance when only months ago, it had upheld broad federal authority to prevent states from authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Oregon voters approved the Death With Dignity Act in 1994 and reaffirmed it 1997. The law says that doctors who follow specific procedures may prescribe lethal doses of federally regulated medications to help their mentally competent, terminally ill patients end their lives. Through 2004, 325 people had obtained the lethal prescriptions, and 208 had used them.

When the Oregon measure took effect, Ashcroft was a senator from Missouri. Along with other members of Congress, he asked the Clinton administration to move to block the law.

Attorney General Janet Reno refused, writing a letter to Congress in June 1998 to say she had no authority to act because there was no evidence that Congress “intended to displace the states as the primary regulators of the medical profession.” Ashcroft then co-sponsored a bill to give the government this authority, but it did not pass.