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Archive for Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Court backs assisted suicide

Roberts in minority in first decision as chief justice

January 18, 2006

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— The first major ruling of the Roberts era at the Supreme Court was missing something: the support of new Chief Justice John Roberts.

Roberts joined the court's most conservative members, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in backing the Bush administration's challenge to Oregon's unique doctor-assisted suicide law.

They were outvoted, however, by moderate and liberal justices who said Oregon doctors can help terminally ill patients die without fear of punishment from the federal government.

The 6-3 decision found that the Bush administration improperly tried to use a federal drug law to pursue Oregon doctors who help people die under the law.

Although Roberts did not write his own dissent, his vote signals how he may change the court.

He replaced William Rehnquist, a states' rights supporter who was against the Bush administration in another state-federal government clash last year, over federal authority to override state medical marijuana statutes.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the latest dispute, between Oregon and social conservatives in the Bush administration, was part of a "political and moral debate" over doctor-assisted suicide.

The ruling could encourage other states to consider copying Oregon's law, used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people in that state. The decision, one of the biggest expected from the court this year, also could set the stage for Congress to attempt to outlaw assisted suicide.

"Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance," Kennedy wrote for the majority - himself, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

With this decision Kennedy showed signs of becoming a more influential swing voter after O'Connor departs. He is a moderate conservative who sometimes joins more liberal members on cases involving such things as gay rights and capital punishment.

The case was argued in October on Roberts' second day on the bench, and he strongly hinted that he would back the Bush administration. Some court watchers had expected O'Connor to be the decisive vote, which could have delayed the case until her successor was on the court. The Senate is set to vote soon on nominee Samuel Alito.

Justices have dealt with end-of-life cases before, most recently in 1997 when the court unanimously ruled that people have no constitutional right to die. That decision, by Rehnquist, left room for states to set their own rules.

The Tuesday ruling, and dissents, were tinged with an understanding about the delicate nature of the subject. The court itself is aging and the death of Rehnquist in September after a yearlong fight with cancer was emotional for the justices.

Scalia said in his dissent that the court's ruling "is perhaps driven by a feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none of the federal government's business. It is easy to sympathize with that position."

At the same time, Scalia said federal officials have the power to regulate doctors in prescribing addictive drugs and "if the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."

He was joined in the dissent by Roberts and Thomas. Roberts did not write separately to explain his vote. Thomas wrote his own dissent.

Oregon's law, which was passed by voters, covers only extremely sick people - those with incurable diseases and who are of sound mind. At least two doctors must agree the ill have six months or less to live before they can use the law.

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