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January 18, 2006

Supreme Court: Oregon Assisted-Suicide Law Should Stand

In a stinging defeat for the administration, the high court ruled by a 6-3 vote that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft wrongly interpreted a federal law in 2001 to bar distribution of controlled drugs to assist suicides, disregarding the Oregon law authorizing it.

That article is a complete hash and isn't worth reading. I just wanted that "stinging defeat" thing on the record.

Althouse has a good discussion on the case. It appears the then-AG (Ashcroft) interpreted a federal law against the prescribing of overdoses as barring physician assisted suicide. I suppose the actual law contemplated, at least on its face, negligent or accidental overdoses, not intentional ones at the request of a dying patient.

Kennedy (of course) writes for the majority:

The statute and our case law amply support the conclusion that Congress regulates medical practice insofar as it bars doctors from using their prescription-writing powers as a means to engage in illicit drug dealing and trafficking as conventionally understood. Beyond this, however, the statute manifests no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally. The silence is understandable given the structure and limitations of federalism, which allow the States "'great latitude under their police powers to legislate as to the protection of the lives, limbs, health, comfort, and quiet of all persons.'"....


The Government, in the end, maintains that the prescription requirement delegates to a single Executive officer the power to effect a radical shift of authority from the States to the Federal Government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality. 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.

So, it seems, Congress could outlaw the practice with a clearly-written law, assuming such a law could pass muster under federalism grounds... which would be difficult.

Althouse notes that several judges are inconsistent about federalism-- some upheld stronger Congressional powers over state drug laws (holding Congress had the power to limit medical marijuana use) and now reject such powers. Only O'Conner takes the states' rights position in both cases, and only Scalia takes the federal superiority position in both cases. Thomas disagreed with the previous decision, but writes that, now that it's settled law that the federal government is supreme in this area, it's "perplexing" to find some of his colleagues, who'd earlier argued in favor of federal supremacy, are now arguing the opposite.

Although this seems like the sort of case with too many balls in play to make any forecasts, it is worth noting that new Chief Justice Roberts dissented along with Scalia and Thomas.

It also seems as if Kennedy has permanently joined the four liberals, more or less, to form a "governing" five-vote majority on social-policy issues.

The NYT Seems To Get It Right: Without hyperventilating or talk of a "stinging defeat:"

The Supreme Court's ruling was, in fact, notably focused and technical. It did not address whether there is a constitutional right to die. It did not say that Congress was powerless to override state laws that allow doctors to help their patients end their lives.

It said only that a particular federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, which is mainly concerned with drug abuse and illegal drug trafficking, had not given John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, the authority to punish Oregon doctors who complied with requests under the state's law. The law allows mentally competent, terminally ill patients to ask their doctors for lethal drugs.

Then again, it's in their partisan interests to get this one right, because honesty serves their purposes. As a Constitutional matter, the issue wasn't met head-on here, which means it hasn't really been decided yet, which means that Alito (boo!) is still a threat to your liberties.

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posted by Ace at 03:03 AM

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