- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Supreme Court yesterday struck down a Bush administration attempt to block Oregon’s one-of-a-kind law protecting doctors who help terminally ill patients commit suicide.

The justices ruled 6-3 that Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his power in 2001 by attempting to use a federal drug-control law to punish doctors who prescribe lethal doses of prescription medicines under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law.

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer formed the majority, ruling that the federal government may regulate prescription writing through the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) of 1970, but only to bar doctors from engaging in illicit drug dealing.

“Beyond this,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, “the statute manifests no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally.”

For instance, he said, an attorney general cannot use the CSA as a tool for prosecuting doctors engaging in prescription-writing activities made legal by a state law such as Oregon’s. “The text and structure of the CSA show that Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance and the congressional role in maintaining it,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented.

More than 200 terminally ill patients have killed themselves with doctors’ help since the state passed the law in 1997. Under the law, only patients with incurable diseases can be prescribed overdoses, and at least two doctors must agree that the patients are of sound mind and have six months or less to live.

Clinton-era Attorney General Janet Reno held that the CSA could not be used to supercede state law. When President Bush took office, Mr. Ashcroft took a different position, asserting that under his interpretation of the CSA, assisted suicide was not a “legitimate medical purpose.”

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia wrote of supporting Mr. Ashcroft’s reading of the CSA, saying the majority’s ruling was “perhaps driven by a feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none of the Federal Government’s business.”

“If the term ‘legitimate medical purpose’ has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death.”

The ruling was met with mixed reactions.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, called it “a significant victory” and said it halted administration “attempts to wrest control of decisions rightfully left to the states and individuals.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and a practicing physician, said, “Nowhere does our Constitution give doctors the right to take the lives of their patients.”

The ruling “has put all vulnerable persons at risk,” he said, adding: “In countries where euthanasia has been legalized, granting doctors the godlike power to decide at what point life has value and when it does not, has led to the killing of babies, the elderly, depressed and handicapped.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative, pro-life legal organization that supported the administration in the case, said the ruling was “likely to result in a troubling movement by states to pass their own assisted-suicide laws.”

Other conservatives, however, said the ruling stopped short of creating a right to kill oneself or have a doctor help out.

“The Supreme Court today did not uphold assisted suicide,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, a Catholic pro-life organization in the District. The ruling speaks “narrowly to an interpretation of federal statutes.”

In other high court action yesterday, the justices:

• Ruled unanimously to allow large multistate banks to claim federal court jurisdiction when lawsuits are filed against them. The justices sided with Wachovia Corp., which sought to have a federal court intervene and appoint an outside arbitrator after being sued in state court.

• Let stand a lower court ruling blocking families of New York firefighters killed September 11, 2001, from suing Motorola over supplying faulty radios. An appeals court said the families, which argued that the radios prevented firefighters from hearing World Trade Center evacuation orders, had waived their right to sue when they accepted money from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

• Heard oral arguments on two cases, one questioning the extent to which a 2002 campaign law blocks corporations and unions from running “genuine issue ads” before political elections, the other questioning steps the government must take to locate a property owner before seizing the property for tax delinquency.

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