Ruling: Assisted Suicide Stands

Article excerpt

Byline: TIM CHRISTIE The Register-Guard

Supporters of Oregon's doctor-assisted suicide law said they could not have asked for a better ruling than the one delivered Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones.

In a strongly worded decision, Jones found that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority when he tried last year to stifle Oregon's controversial, ground-breaking law that permits doctors to help terminally ill patients kill themselves.

The judge also ordered the federal government not to interfere with the Oregon law while the case is on appeal.

"Clearly Judge Jones' decision verifies the position of Oregon voters and it also verifies Oregon's right to establish its own medical practices," said Kevin Neely, spokesman for Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, who sued to block Ashcroft's directive.

Ashcroft issued his directive Nov. 6, finding that doctor-assisted suicide was not "a legitimate medical purpose" under federal drug laws. He authorized federal drug agents to investigate and revoke the federal drug licenses of doctors who participate in the law.

Two days later, Myers, joined by doctors and dying patients, sued Ashcroft and the federal government. Jones, appointed to the federal bench in 1990 by the first President Bush, granted a temporary injunction against Ashcroft two days later.

Jones' decision hinged on the Controlled Substances Act, a federal drug law that Ashcroft argued gave him authority to regulate Oregon's law. The judge looked at the plain language of the law, its legislative history and the case law. Nowhere did he find authority for Ashcroft to interfere in Oregon's regulations without a federal law explicitly granting him that authority.

The federal drug law was intended to control drug abuse and drug trafficking, Jones wrote, not to give the Justice Department authority "to establish a national medical practice or act as a national medical board."

"To allow an attorney general - an appointed executive whose tenure depends entirely on whatever administration occupies the White House - to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice without a specific congressional grant of such authority would be unprecedented and extraordinary."

Jones also criticized Ashcroft for trying to `stifle an ongoing `earnest and profound debate' in the various states concerning physician-assisted suicide' when he issued his directive. Oregon voters have voted "not once, but twice" for the law and "have chosen to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate on physician-assisted suicide for themselves."

Legal experts expect the U. S. Justice Department to appeal Jones' ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process expected to take several years. But Ashcroft said Wednesday he has not decided whether to appeal.

`We will make decisions about what our response is when we have an opportunity to digest the opinion,' Ashcroft said.

His deputy, Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum, said the Justice Department `remains convinced' that `assisting suicide is not medicine.'

`Physicians pledge a sacred oath to preserve health, heal disease, relieve pain and not to terminate lives with deadly drugs,' McCallum said.

Attorney Eli Stutsman, who represented a doctor and a pharmacist in the suit against Ashcroft, predicted the appeals court would uphold Jones and that the Supreme Court would refuse even to hear the case.

"The court's decision is a bullet-proof decision," he said. "He ruled in a narrow fashion. His analysis is quite sound."

Jose Roberto Juarez, a visiting law professor at the University of Oregon, also predicted it would withstand scrutiny by higher courts.

"The 9th Circuit has a reputation as a court that is generally progressive in its decisions, and would not be particularly troubled by a state like Oregon deciding there is a right to die," he said. …