Wyden meets with Supreme Court nominee Roberts

WASHINGTON – Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden met with Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Tuesday, and came away convinced Roberts “would not look favorably” on an attempt by Congress to intervene in an end-of-life case similar to that of Terri Schiavo.

Wyden, a Democrat, met with Roberts for nearly an hour, Tuesday, at Wyden’s Senate office.

The meeting was closed, but Wyden said later that he asked Roberts about Schiavo, the brain-dead Florida woman whose case became a national sensation. Congress pushed through unprecedented emergency legislation aimed at prolonging Schiavo’s life by allowing the case to be reviewed by federal courts.

Wyden, who is undecided on Roberts’ nomination, said Roberts told him he could not comment on the Schiavo case directly.

But Roberts did answer when Wyden asked if he thought it was constitutional for Congress to intervene in an end-of-life-case with a specific remedy. In the Schiavo case, many lawmakers advocated reinserting a feeding tube to help her live.

Roberts told Wyden he was concerned with judicial independence. Congress can prescribe standards, Roberts added, “but when Congress starts to act like a court and prescribe particular remedies in particular cases, Congress has overstepped its bounds.”

Wyden said he considered the answer significant, “because the question I was asking has applicability” to the Schiavo case.

Offering a remedy “is what Congress was doing in the original version of the Schiavo bill,” Wyden said, adding that Roberts “would not look favorably on Congress rushing to override the right to be left alone.”

While he told Wyden that federal law on end-of-life decisions is still being developed, Roberts said he “starts with the supposition that one has the right to be left alone,” Wyden said.

Wyden and other Oregon lawmakers are especially interested in Roberts’ views on physician-assisted suicide.

The Supreme Court is slated to consider a challenge to Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law allowing assisted suicide this fall. Wyden and other Democratic lawmakers have filed a brief opposing efforts by the Bush administration to overturn the Oregon law.

The lawmakers claim that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is improperly interfering with the state’s traditional power to regulate medicine and say his actions have no basis in federal law.

The administration says federal drug laws prohibit doctors from prescribing lethal doses. Doctors who prescribe overdoses may be punished, since physician-assisted suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose,” the Justice Department says.

Arguments are expected at the high court in October.

Wyden said he did not ask Roberts how he would rule in the assisted suicide case, if confirmed, but did probe his views on states’ rights, a key issue in the case.

Roberts told him that the genius of the federal system is it allows different states to approach problems in ways suited to their needs, Wyden said. Imposing uniformity across states would stifle the genius of the founding fathers, Roberts told Wyden.

“I cannot say how he would rule” in the assisted suicide case, Wyden said, “but I am hopeful, given what he said to me today, that he would give the state a lot of deference in end-of-life [cases] and assisted suicide.”

Though the overall tone of the meeting was positive, Wyden said he was disconcerted by Roberts’ answer to the question of whether the Roe v. Wade abortion case was “settled law,” as Roberts said during his 2003 confirmation hearings for his current position on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

While that answer was true, regarding the Appellate Court, the notion of settled law depends on what bench you are sitting on, Roberts told Wyden. The Supreme Court is clearly different from the Court of Appeals, Roberts said.

Wyden called the answer surprising and said, “I will tell you, based on my discussion with Judge Roberts this afternoon, the concept of what is settled law is not exactly settled.”

Wyden, an abortion rights supporter, said Roberts’ answer was not enough to cause him to vote no, but said, “It’s an area that needs to be followed up on.”