WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Tuesday dealt a blow to the Bush administration's efforts to curb assisted suicide, saying a federal drug law can't be used to punish doctors who, under the state law of Oregon, help terminally ill patients end their lives.
The ruling clears a legal morass surrounding the long-embattled Oregon law and paves the way for other states to consider assisted-suicide measures that involve physicians.
It also makes clear a court majority believes executive power cannot be expanded by a president beyond limits set by Congress in some cases—a point that could carry added significance in an era of increasingly bold assertions of executive power by the Bush administration.
"It's a reminder to the executive branch that they will be bound by a tight, lawyerly reading of a statute," said Marc Spindelman, who teaches law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. "It may say something about how other claims of authority will be handled."
The ruling might also inspire Congress, under pressure from groups opposed to assisted suicide, to pass a law that gives the Department of Justice more specific permission to combat assisted suicide.
The court, by a 6-3 vote, said Congress clearly didn't intend to do that with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft had declared in 2001 that the law implicitly permitted him to decide that assisted suicide wasn't a "legitimate medical purpose" and to prevent doctors from acting under the Oregon law.
But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, said that declaration assumed "an authority that goes well beyond the Attorney General's statutory power." He noted that Ashcroft's interpretation "delegates to a single Executive officer the power to effect a radical shift of authority from the states to the federal government."
Federal drug laws didn't "have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance," Kennedy said.
The ruling drew pointed dissents from Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining Scalia's opposition without explanation.
Scalia said Ashcroft's reading of the law was reasonable and that the court's past decisions required deference to the executive branch to interpret Congress' intent in a particular statute. Thomas said the ruling didn't square with a 2004 high court ruling that permitted use of drug laws to regulate medical marijuana.
Roberts' silent opposition to the ruling left no clues to his take on issues such as the scope of executive authority under federal drug laws and the balance between federal and state power. The case was the first high-profile one he'd heard and it was argued just days after he was confirmed as chief justice.
Roberts left unexplained how this case differs in his view from a 1997 court ruling that said states should be free to decide how to handle end-of-life issues. Roberts praised that ruling at the time, saying it was important "not to have too narrow a view of protecting personal rights."
The Oregon law has been a subject of dispute since the day it passed in 1994. It allows a team of doctors to determine when terminally ill patients can be given lethal doses of prescribed drugs. About 200 people have ended their lives under the law.
The Clinton administration concluded in the late 1990s that it had no role in deciding the law's validity, and Congress was unable to muster the votes to attack it directly through legislation.
When the Bush administration took over in 2001, though, the federal policy changed. Ashcroft announced that he read the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) differently from Clinton officials and that he would try to revoke the licenses of doctors who participated in the Oregon program.
The state challenged Ashcroft's action, saying he had overstepped the bounds of the federal drug law and intruded into matters of medical practice standards, which are historically reserved to the states. Two lower courts sided with the state, and the Bush administration appealed to the Supreme Court.
The case raised issues about the scope of executive power to interpret legislation, as well as the reach of the federal government into areas typically handled by states.
The ruling largely avoided the federal-vs.-state issue and boiled down to a fine reading of how executive agencies interpret congressional legislation. Some court watchers said the justices may not have been as unified on the difficult federal power question and were in more agreement about the administrative law issue.
Kennedy wrote that while the federal drug law gave the attorney general broad powers to help decide which drugs should be legal and under what circumstances, it doesn't grant authority to make unilateral medical decisions.
"In the face of the CSA'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," he wrote.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer agreed.
Scalia said Ashcroft's interpretation of the power that Congress gave him was a "perfectly valid" one and that it met the court's standards for deference to the executive branch.
"The question before us is not whether Congress CAN do this, or even whether Congress SHOULD do this; but simply whether Congress HAS done this in the CSA," Scalia wrote.
"I think there is no doubt that it has. If the term `LEGITIMATE medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."
Jonathan Adler, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said Scalia's dissent is reflective of his longtime view that courts should defer to elected branches to determine the scope of authority defined in legislation.
"Scalia is willing to let agencies interpret statutes in ways that expand their authority," he said. He said Roberts' decision to join Scalia's opinion "may indicate that he's somewhat sympathetic to Scalia's view of the relative role of courts versus agencies in construing statutes."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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