Assisted suicide case before Supreme Court

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – An announcement on whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear the Bush administration’s challenge of Oregon’s assisted suicide law could come as early as this week.

The administration is arguing that it should be allowed to punish Oregon doctors who prescribe drugs to terminally ill patients, as is permitted under state law.

If the court takes the case, Oregon’s law could become an important part of a larger debate over the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to block state laws permitting assisted suicide and medical marijuana.

But if the court rejects the appeal, the case returns to the political arena, where its future is up in the air.

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft started the legal fight in 2001 when he announced that the federal Controlled Substances Act allowed the DEA to take action against physicians who prescribed lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients under the Oregon law.

In the first six years of the law, 171 terminally ill people ended their lives under the Death With Dignity Act.

Attorneys for Oregon and assisted-suicide supporters sued Ashcroft, contending he had exceeded his authority under the Controlled Substances Act, which was designed to combat illegal drug trafficking.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones in Portland sided with the state in early 2002. Two years later, a divided U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld Jones’ ruling.

Some assisted-suicide supporters see an implicit endorsement of Oregon’s law in a 1996 Supreme Court ruling upholding a Washington law banning suicide.

"Throughout the nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote at the time for a unanimous court. "Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society."

But if the court is interested in further exploring the reach of federal authority under the Controlled Substances Act, it may be more inclined to take the case.

The court is examining that issue in an appeal over California’s medical marijuana law, in which the plaintiffs are arguing that growing a small amount of marijuana for terminally ill patients is beyond the authority of the federal government to regulate interstate drug trafficking.

If the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, opponents of assisted suicide probably would move from the legal arena to a political one.

A previous bill, the Pain Relief Promotion Act, would have forbidden doctors from prescribing lethal doses of controlled painkillers. It passed the House 271-156 in 1999, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., held off a Senate vote in 2000 by threatening a filibuster.

Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster and allow a vote on a bill. Assisted-suicide opponents could not gather enough votes in 2000, but Wyden would face a tougher fight in 2005.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee may want to deliver a goal long sought by religious conservatives.

And Wyden’s success in 2000 drew on support from then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who was defeated in 2004.

Democrats now are led by Harry Reid of Nevada, who is more socially conservative than Daschle. A spokesman declined to say whether Reid would support a filibuster.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the Democratic co-sponsor of the Pain Relief Promotion Act in 2000, said last week that he plans to revisit the issue if the Supreme Court chooses not to review Oregon’s law.