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January 17, 2006

Good News, Bad News

The Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's attempt to invalidate Oregon's assisted suicide law, 6-3. The bad news? Chief Justice John Roberts was among the dissenters. He didn't write an opinion and so his reasoning remains rather opaque, but it's a worrying, and decidedly immoderate, start.

January 17, 2006 | Permalink


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He didn't write an opinion and so his reasoning remains rather opaque

I'd call it more transparent.

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Jan 17, 2006 11:58:04 AM

You watch, that creep won't bother to write an opinion even if he votes to make Bush president-for-life. We'll just have to accept as coincidence that he takes the extreme-right position on every issue under the sun, including pizza toppings.

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Jan 17, 2006 12:01:01 PM


what are extreme-right pizza toppings? Surely not Canadian bacon.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 17, 2006 12:06:08 PM

when npr listed the three dissenters as chief justice john roberts... and antonin scalia... and clarence thomas, i wish i'd been surprised. we've got another power-mad "conservative" extremist for thirty years. but we knew that already.

at least he's cute, right nina totenburg?

Posted by: pluripotentate | Jan 17, 2006 12:23:57 PM

Soon it will be the turn of our side to decry "legislating from the bench" while the right wingers leap to the defense of judicial independence.

Seriously. Take away O'conner and substitute Alito, and the vote would have been 5:4. Too close for comfort.

Posted by: battlepanda | Jan 17, 2006 12:46:55 PM

This Oregonian and supporter of the assisted suicide law took the time to read the majority opinion, the Scalia dissent (joined by Roberts and Thomas) and the Thomas dissent.

My conclusion is that the decision is nearly impossible to reconcile with the decision on the California marijuana law (which went in the other direction by 180 degrees), and it not the ringing endorsement of a state's (or MD's) rights that one could conclude from the press coverage so far.

The decision is heavy reading because it relies heavily on previous cases where deference by the courts to executive rulemaking pursuant to broadly worded laws have been defined. The minority reads the precedents differently, and obtains a different result. This is no ringing declaration of federalism's continued viability, but wrangling about how to do rulemaking correctly. The attorney general could read this decision, do some homework (including due process on rulemaking), and issue a new opinion that might pursuade the court to approve of the AG's position that assisted suicide is not really generally accepted practice of medicine. It is true that the dissent gives more freedom of federal executive agencies to preempt state activity, but (in my reading) is not an extreme viewpoint).

This isn't over yet, IMO.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Jan 17, 2006 1:49:05 PM

Oh, and the majority opinion, and two dissents are linked here. (in PDF form)

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Jan 17, 2006 1:52:59 PM

Extreme right wing pizza toppings: Tuna Fish, American Cheese, and Ground Beef.

Or this,


Posted by: Alan | Jan 17, 2006 4:13:14 PM

You all need to read the opinion. I was ready to go nuts on this too. Then I read it.
The majority doesn't uphold the Oregon law; the dissent doesn't argue it should be struck down. The case is about who gets to implement a federal statute (the Controlled Substances Act), the agencies concerned or Oregon. The majority goes out of its way to find a reason Oregon should get to control the interpretation of a federal statute. The dissent took a more principled decision.

Oregon can let doctors assist suicide, but not using substances that are federally controlled. Where the federal regulation exists, the federal government should get to interpret it. It seems like it should be an uncontroversial position.

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jan 17, 2006 4:23:36 PM

I think there's some confusion here about the issue and the holding. As I read it, the question is whether the AG's rulemaking authority under the Controlled Substance Act extends to determining whether assisting suicide is legitimate medical practice. The Court held that it doesn't, as the CSA leaves the control and regulation of medical practice to the states, where it's traditionally been. The difference from the marijuana case is that in the marijuana case, Congress had clearly acted to ban marijuana, and states were trying to use their authority over medical practice to override the federal statute. In the Oregon case, the issue wasn't whether Congress had the power to ban assisted suicide (after the marijuana case, it's pretty clear that they do), but whether they had exercised that power by adopting the CSA. They could ban assisted suicide tomorrow, but they haven't yet, and since they haven't, the Court was quite right to reject the AG's attempt at bootstrapping an assisted suicide ban out of his power to regulate the use of drugs.

Posted by: DaveL | Jan 17, 2006 6:46:37 PM

Is anyone else watching this and worrying that assisted suicide laws are going to become the new must-have law, for no other reason than to hold down Medicare costs?

We should be wary of making it easier for the most vulnerable of us to die.

Posted by: Mastiff | Jan 17, 2006 11:13:29 PM

Um no, especially if you, like I, don't view every fringe argument as a position of the party. You'd be wise to do the same.

Posted by: Adrock | Jan 18, 2006 11:09:43 AM

Um no, especially if you, like I, don't view every fringe argument as a position of the party.

A very good point. I really don't hold the Democratic party responsible for the crackpots here. However, the left wing of the party is, indeed, in control. That is why Hillary is acting so stupid right now. She is afraid that she has moved too far to the center too soon.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jan 18, 2006 3:07:56 PM

Those of you who think the dissent is correct should read again. The case really has only one issue. The Controlled Substances Act says that it is a crime to distribute certain drugs (like morphine), unless they are prescribed by a doctors "in the course of professional practice." Courts have added that this phrase means that such drugs may be prescribed only for a "legitimate medical purpose." So, for example, a physician who writes prescriptions of pain killers to sell to addicts is not acting with a "legitimate medical purpose," and is instead a criminal.

In this case, Attorney General Ashcroft made a decision that assisting a terminally ill patient to commit suicide cannot take place "in the course of professional practice" -- that is, assisting in suicide is never a "legitimate medical purpose." So a physician who uses morphine to bring about a suicide would be liable to criminal prosecution as a drug-dealer - not as a murderer, because Oregon says he's not (murder is state law crime).

So the ONLY question was, who gets to decide what is legitimate medicine and what is not? The Controlled Substances Act doesn't give the power to make that decision to the Attorney General. Historically, regulation of medicine has been a state function. And the majority on the Supreme Court said, If the State of Oregon says that assisting terminal patients to die in order to alleviate their suffering is legitimate medicine, the AG cannot interfere.

What did the dissenters say? Writing for them, Justice Scalia wrote, ""If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."

But the whole issue of the case is, WHO GETS TO DECIDE what "legitimate medical purpose" means. If you believe in state's rights, you should believe that Oregon gets to decide. But Scalia knows better. He, an unelected judge with no medical training, "surely" knows what "legitimate medical purpose" means better than the voters of Oregon and better than the physicians of Oregon.

How does he know? He doesn't tell us, but it's pretty clear that we are hearing his religious belief talking. That is why Roberts and Thomas joined him. For the right-wing Catholics on the bench, religous dogma trumps commitment to federalist principles. If Alito is confirmed, we will see many cases where unspoken assumptions based on religious belief form the basis of the Court's decisions.

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