Supreme Court Upholds Death with Dignity

By a 6-3 margin, Oregon's Death with Dignity Act is upheld.

The Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting, 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 the 1997 Oregon law used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people trumped federal authority to regulate doctors. That means the administration improperly tried to use a federal drug law to prosecute Oregon doctors who prescribe overdoses. ... The authority desired by the government is inconsistent with the design of the statute in other fundamental respects. The attorney general does not have the sole delegated authority under the (law)," Kennedy wrote for himself, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.


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    Scalia, Thomas and Roberts dissented.

    At least if Scalito gets a pass, this is presumably still safe. I wonder if Kennedy is seeing the light...

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Roberts' dissent demonstrates he is aligned with Scalia and Thomas and not an open-minded moderate, as some liberals have been hoping.

    In most of the 5-4 decisions in which O'Connor was the swing vote, Kennedy voted with Thomas, Scalia and Rehnquist. So if Kennedy becomes the swing vote, it's very likely the court will swing lopsidedly to the right.

    That makes it all the more important for Senate Democrats to filibuster Alito, on the grounds that he is predisposed to come down on the side of the rich and powerful in most cases. If he is someone who will adjudicate objectively, why are the extreme right wingers so fervent in their support of him?

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    There never was a truly compelling argument from Ashcroft's side of this (I know he's gone, but this was his pet project). Everyone knew he was bastardizing the Controlled Substances Act.

    That Roberts joined the dissent proves, pretty early in his tenure on the court, that he lied when he told Congress he'd simply and faithfully interpret the laws of the land and not act ideologically. There's no basis for supporting Ashcroft's position other than personal and political opposition to the law.

    I guess that makes Roberts, well, an activist judge, no?

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    It's interesting to see Scalia and Thomas on this case (and, by extension, Roberts). They profess to have these neutral interpretive philosophies (whether called originalism, textualism, strict constructionism, etc.) that dictate what the law is, as if it were a science leading to a predetermined result.

    That's what folks thought about the law over 100 years ago. Now we know the law is almost entirely a product of judges and their combined personalities, including their predilection to follow precedent, their personal agendas and worldviews, etc.

    Today, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts must abandon all pretext that they are merely following neutral principles. Following the principles they claim to espouse would have lead to a result they do not like (upholding assisted suicide). Ironically, their abandonment of those "principles" also leads them to another result they do not like: greater concentration of power in the federal government (whiff of Raich and medical marijuana?).

    I guess the conservatives hate suicide and weed more than they do government. But it's time for Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to call things by their proper names. Scalia et al are as activist as anyone ever was, interested primarily in a result-oriented jurisprudence. By framing their ideologies in terms of activism, the phrase will come to be meaningless, deprived of its current definition as a shorthand for condeming liberal results.

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    This ruling is potentially a HUGE issue. First, it will open up end-of-life issues to a real debate, and we may see other states begin to look into death with dignity. The social and medical effects of the discussion should be really valuable.

    But more importantly, this has the look of a major wedge issue for liberals. Looking back to the Terri Schiavo incident, it seems clear where religious conservatives fall on the issue. Not only are they against the practice, they're willing to go to extraordinary means. But assisted suicide is supported by a fairly substantial majority of Americans. (It varies depending on how the question is worded, but a CNN poll from last fall, which asked about the Oregon law, found that 64% of respondents felt "physicians should be given the right to dispense prescriptions to patients to end their life.")

    Roe preceeded the national impulse toward abortion, came from a top-down ruling, and wedged the left. Death with Dignity followed national interest and came up from the states. It looks to have every chance of wedging the right. Dems should take note and lead the discussion on national end-of-life issues. It's a winner.

  • David English (unverified)

    All I can say is, "thank god!"

    Honestly, I really thought the court was going to rule in favor of Bush and Ashcroft and overturn the Death with Dignity Act.

    Remember this is just one fight though...I'm sure Abortion will come up soon.

  • mrfearless47 (unverified)

    Cody writes:

    "Ironically, their abandonment of those "principles" also leads them to another result they do not like: greater concentration of power in the federal government (whiff of Raich and medical marijuana?)."

    But Raich and the Assisted Suicide Law are fundamentally different. The former involved a drug that has no legitimate medical purpose and is controlled under the CSA Schedule I. The only uses for Schedule 1 drugs is for experimentations, not for medical dispensation. So prescribing marijuana is not sanctioned under the CSA for any medical purposes - legal or otherwise. By contrast, the drugs used in Assisted Suicide are recognized as Schedule II or Schedule III drugs and can legitimately be prescribed by any physician who is (a) licensed to practice medicine and (b) has the required DEA license to dispense controlled substances.

    So, as far as I'm concerned, while I happen to believe that medical marijuana should be permitted, I understand more clearly why SCOTUS ruled the way it did in Raich and in Gonzales v Oregon. I see some hypocrisy, but nothing legally inconsistent.

  • Becky (unverified)

    My father died of cancer last February - a very agonizing death. Watching him I just couldn't help but wonder whether I would prefer choosing my own time of death rather than going through pointless suffering. He would never have chosen assisted suicide because he never gave up hope that he would pull through, and when he realized he wasn't going to make it, he wanted to milk every last second of time he could get with his family. But that was his decision - a decision the vast majority of people make, by the way.

    Opponents of this law act as if this will result in forced suicides. Not only do the statistics belie this (of something like 65,000 Oregonians who could have chosen assisted suicide, only 208 actually have done so), but after watching what happened to my father I believe the fear these people have is already a reality. My father spent his last day pumped full of massive doses of morphine, and that night his wife removed his oxygen, so he basically suffocated. I was disgusted by this because I know he would not have wanted that. But it made me realize that it is already pretty easy to hasten someone's death against their will if a person is that cold hearted. Having a law allowing assisted suicide may help prevent some of this by simply causing people to have a discussion about their end of life decisions. If my father had been given an opportunity to make his wishes clear to the family and medical staff - to live as long as possible - perhaps his wife would have been more reluctant to speed him on his way.

    Many of those who oppose the law do so because of a belief that only God should determine when someone dies. To enforce that view via laws against assisted suicide is to lean toward a theocracy, which is unacceptable and unAmerican. The phoney "states rights" argument being used to oppose the law is just a cover for the beliefs certain justices hold that biblical law should be the law of the land - that their religious beliefs should be imposed on all the citizens of this country. It is anti-freedom and anti-individual. This from the supposed protectors of the "rugged individual".

    So long as doctors are neither forced against their conscience to prescribe lethal prescriptions or sued for having done so, I see this as a personal issue that is nobody's business but the dying individual who is making their own choice.

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