Wednesday, November 10, 2004


The Bush administration asked the Supreme Court yesterday to block the nation’s only law allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die more quickly.

The appeal from Attorney General John Ashcroft had been expected since May, when a lower court ruled the federal government could not punish Oregon doctors who prescribed lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.

Oregon voters approved the law, and since 1998 more than 170 people have used it to end their lives. Most had cancer. The Bush administration has argued that assisted suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose” and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.

The law, known as the Death With Dignity Act, lets patients with less than six months to live request a lethal dose of drugs after two doctors confirm the diagnosis and determine the person’s mental competence to make the request.

Paul Clement, acting solicitor general, said in the appeal that the law cannot stand because it conflicts with the federal government’s powers. The court probably will decide early next year whether it will hear the case.

Meanwhile, the court ruled that a drunken-driving accident is not a “crime of violence” allowing the government to deport a permanent resident, in the first of three cases this term delineating the rights of immigrants.

In an 11-page opinion by ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court ruled unanimously in favor of Josue Leocal, a Florida man challenging his deportation to Haiti in 2002 after pleading guilty to a felony charge of drunken driving.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DUI offense was a “crime of violence” under the immigration statute because he had caused injury to others.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It said the plain meaning of the statute suggests that the felony offense must require intent in causing harm — not mere negligence as in Mr. Leocal’s case — before immigrants are subject to the drastic consequence of deportation.

“Drunk driving is a nationwide problem, as evidenced by the efforts of legislatures to prohibit such conduct and impose appropriate remedies,” Chief Justice Rehnquist stated. “But this fact does not warrant our shoehorning it into statutory sections where it does not fit.”

Mr. Leocal, 47, was sentenced to more than two years in prison in 2000 on the felony charge, but his attorney had argued that he had never been arrested before during nearly 20 years in the United States, nor did he deliberately intend to cause harm.

Later this term, the court will rule on two other immigration cases in which the government argues it should have wide discretion to send back or indefinitely detain foreigners in a post-September 11 world of heightened terror threats.

In a second ruling yesterday, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a decision in a case involving a dispute over cargo damage in a train wreck. The court ruled unanimously that a contract negotiated as part of a federal maritime law protects Norfolk Southern Railway Co. from having to pay large damages, even though the accident happened on land, not at sea.

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