Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

United States Supreme Court Upholds Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law

The United States Supreme Court has upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law in a 6-3 opinion released today (January 17, 2006).

In 2001, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft determined that assisted suicide was not a legitimate medical practice and thus doctors who prescribe the deadly drugs would be in violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In Oregon v. Ashcroft, 368 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2004), the court held that this attempt to hold physicians criminally responsible if they help terminally ill patients commit suicide exceeded Ashcroft’s authority under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The court stated, "To be perfectly clear, we take no position on the merits or morality of physician assisted suicide. We express no opinion on whether the practice is inconsistent with the public interest or constitutes illegitimate medical care. This case is simply about who gets to decide. All parties agree that the question before us is whether Congress authorized the Attorney General to determine that physician assisted suicide violates the CSA. We hold that the Attorney General lacked Congress’ requisite authorization. The Ashcroft Directive violates the "clear statement" rule, contradicts the plain language of the CSA, and contravenes the express intent of Congress." Id. at 1123.

On February 22, 2005, the Supreme Court of the United States granted petition for a writ of certiorari in Gonzales v. Oregon, 2005 WL 405754 (2005) (the new style of Ashcroft v. Oregon).

In today's opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court recognized that the federal government has the authority to punish drug dealers and pass rules for health and safety but that in the case of Oregon's assisted suicide legislation, the state legislation prevailed. The Court explained that "the authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design."

See Gina Holland, Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Suicide Law, AP, Jan. 17, 2006.


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