On January 8, 1997, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the assisted suicide cases of Vacco v. Quill(2) (challenging New York's assisted suicide ban) and Washington v. Glucksberg(3) (challenging Washington's law barring assisted suicide). Decisions on the cases from the Supreme Court are expected by early July, 1997.
This Verbatim provides a survey of many of the arguments made in friend of the court briefs supporting New York and Washington, providing key material verbatim. Forty-one amicus curiae briefs were filed in one or both of the cases in support of New York and Washington, i.e., in opposition to the notion that there is a constitutional right to suicide and assistance in committing suicide under substantive due process or equal protection theories (or any constitutional theory).(4) Nineteen briefs were filed favoring assisted suicide.(5)
Some of the briefs focused wholly or partially on making basic equal protection or substantive due process arguments, similar to those made by the states of New York and Washington in their briefs.(6) This Verbatim will not reiterate basic constitutional analyses, but will focus on unique or especially insightful contributions made by the amici curiae.
A review of the amici curiae opposing the declaration of a constitutional right to assisted suicide is itself enlightening. Opposition to a constitutional right to assisted suicide came from a diverse spectrum of entities. Appended to this article is a table listing the amici curiae and the major topics on which they focused in their briefs. Some are highlighted here.
Several briefs were filed by physical and mental health care provider organizations, much of the writing correcting misperceptions about numerous people dying in agony upon which the Second and Ninth Circuit opinions were based. The American Medical Association (AMA) (290,000 members), the American Nurses Association (180,000 members), and the American Psychiatric Association (42,000 members) filed a brief in Glucksberg, on which they were joined by a large number of organizations.(7) Briefs were also filed by the American Suicide Foundation, American Geriatrics Society, the American Hospital Association, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging,(8) the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Medical Association, the Medical Society of New Jersey, the National Hospice Association, the National Association of Prolife Nurses,(9) and the Christian Medical & Dental Society.(10)
Several briefs were filed by governmental entities. The United States of America (by the U.S. Justice Department) filed two briefs, one in each of the cases. Three members of the U.S. Congress (Sen. Hatch, Rep. Hyde, and Rep. Canady) joined together on a brief. Members of the New York and Washington legislatures combined on a brief.(11) The states of Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and the territory of Puerto Rico joined in a brief. The State of Oregon filed its own brief. Richard Thompson, the Oakland County (Michigan) prosecuting attorney, filed a brief recounting his unsuccessful efforts to convict Jack Kevorkian and warning of the near impossibility of enforcing restrictions on any declared right to assisted suicide. E. Michael McCann, the District Attorney for Milwaukee County (Wisconsin) also filed a brief.
Forty-nine bioethicists joined on a brief arguing the rationality and broad social acceptance of a line between forgoing medical treatment and assisted suicide, countering the lower courts presupposition that assisted suicide must be permitted if withdrawal of treatment is permitted. George Annas, a prolific writer in the field of bioethics who is also an attorney, provided leadership in drafting the brief for the bioethics professors. …