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What Did Gonzales v. Oregon Decide?


General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
Washington Post staff writer William Branigin, in a Jan. 17, 2006 article entitled "Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Assisted Suicide Law," explained the Gonzales v. Oregon ruling:

"In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled that then-U.S. attorney general John D. Ashcroft overstepped his authority in 2001 by trying to use a federal drug law to prosecute doctors who prescribed lethal overdoses under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, the only law in the nation that allows physician-assisted suicide. The measure has been approved twice by Oregon voters and upheld by lower court rulings.

Faced with lower court rulings against his position, Ashcroft brought the case to the Supreme Court on the day he announced his resignation in November 2004. The case was continued by his successor as attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales...

At issue was whether the federal Controlled Substances Act, enacted in 1970 to combat drug abuse and trafficking, allowed the attorney general unilaterally to prohibit doctors in Oregon from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide, despite state law permitting them to do so.

Writing the opinion of the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the federal law bars doctors from using prescriptions to engage in illicit drug dealing but that 'the statute manifests no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally...In the face of the Controlled Substances Act's silence on the practice of medicine generally and its recognition of state regulation of the medical profession, it is difficult to defend the Attorney General's declaration that the statute impliedly criminalizes physician-assisted suicide.'"

Jan. 17, 2006 - Washington Post 

The National Right to Life Committee Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics Director, Burke Balch, JD, commented in the Jan., 2006 National Right to Life Committee "Response" to Gonzales v. Oregon:

"In Gonzales v. Oregon, the Supreme Court struck down the Bush Administration position that federally controlled narcotics and other dangerous drugs cannot be used to kill patients. To be polite, the reasoning in the 6-3 decision was very odd.

Under the relevant statute, as the Court recognizes, a doctor may prescribe these federally controlled drugs only for a 'legitimate medical purpose.' Justice Antonin Scalia, writing in dissent, points out, 'If the term 'legitimate' medical purpose has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death.'

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy concedes, 'On its own, this understanding of medicine's boundaries is at least reasonable.'

Usually the courts say that government administrators charged with implementing a statute have the ability to issue and enforce reasonable interpretations of the statute, especially when Congress gives them the authority to promulgate regulations applying it. In this case, however, the Supreme Court majority held that the federal drug control law was designed to prevent only drug abuse that leads to 'addiction or abnormal effects on the nervous system.' Former Attorney General John Ashcroft stretched too far in interpreting it as limiting narcotic use to kill patients, at least according to the majority opinion.

As Justice Clarence Thomas, also dissenting, noted ironically, 'The majority does not expressly address whether the ingestion of a quantity of drugs that is sufficient to cause death has an 'abnormal effec[t] on the nervous system,' though it implicitly rejects such a conclusion.'

The Court did not embrace Oregon's broad claim that federal administrators must defer to each state's own view of what drug-prescribing practices are 'legitimate' within its own borders. As Scalia observed, 'The Court is perhaps leery of embracing this position because [Oregon] candidly admitted at oral argument that, on its view, a State could exempt ... the use of morphine to achieve euphoria.'

So instead the majority chose to craft the narrow view that the federal statute authorizes the national government to override a state's assertion of the acceptability of some kinds of what would generally be considered drug misuse (e.g., to achieve euphoria) but not of others (e.g., to bring about death)."

Jan. 2006 - National Right to Life Committee 

Compassion & Choices, a national advocacy group that promotes the legalization of aid in dying, in their Jan. 24, 2006 news update on Gonzales v. Oregon, commented:

"The US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of choice at the end of life. In a 6 to 3 decision, the court ruled the Attorney General’s attempt to intervene in affairs of the state’s aid-in-dying law has exceeded his authority.

'This is a watershed decision for freedom and democracy in the U.S.,' says Barbara Coombs Lee, Co-CEO and president of Compassion & Choices. 'It reaffirms the liberty, dignity and privacy Americans cherish at the end of life.

'No government should threaten these rights nor usurp a state’s power to meet the needs of its dying citizens,' she says."

Jan. 24, 2006 - Compassion & Choices