Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Assisted Suicide Law

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s law allowing assisted suicide this morning by a 6-3 vote.

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 that a federal drug law does not override the 1997 Oregon law used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people. New Chief Justice John Roberts backed the Bush administration, dissenting for the first time.

The administration improperly tried to use a drug law to punish Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of prescription medicines, the court majority said. “Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance,” Justice Anthony M. 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.

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.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself, Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, 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.”

I’m typically much more aligned with the three dissenters than with the majority and may well come to their position on this after reading the opinion.  Based on the AP description, though, this strikes me as the right decision.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. M1EK says:

    The three dissenters basically proved that they’re strict constructionists and states’ rightsers when the strict constructionist and/or states’ rights logic argues what the Republicans happen to want, but not when it doesn’t.

  2. BWE says:

    “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.”

    Yeah. It is easy to sympathize with the moral position. The federal gov’t maybe should stop its authority after the fda rules on a drug’s safety? Any thoughts on this?

    I know that, since I generally lean toward states’ rights, I may be seeing this differently than others, but both sides want states rights when the feds are overruling the state law that they support but in favor of federal power when the state is trying to do something they don’t like. Doesn’t this seem to fit into a general category of “let states choose their own moral position? i.e. drug laws, gay marriage and abortion. I guess there is a slippery slope because of the 14th ammendment and predudice but aside from that, how is it Maine’s business if Oregon wants to give pot to cancer patients and let them end their lives when they are painfully and terminally ill?

  3. slickdpdx says:

    It is important to read the opinion.

    The dissent did not advocate striking down Oregon’s assisted suicide law anymore than the majority upheld it. The case is about who gets to interpret a federal law making certain substances subject to federal regulation: the federal government or a state? The dissent says “the feds of course”. Oregon can permit doctors to assist suicides, but not contrary to federal regulation of controlled substances under the federal controlled substances act. Oregon doesn’t get to make the ultimate decision about what is legitimate under a federal statute.

    The majority says, normally the feds but blah blah blah, oh look, I’ve got an ace up my sleeve that says in this instance, for no particular reason and contrary to cases painfully distinguished, the state can.

  4. Kathy K says:

    “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.”

    Indeed it is – and our so-called conservative judges should have. I’m with M1EK on this one.