Supreme Court Upholds Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law

Gonzales v. Oregon: Amazingly, in a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court has voted for states' rights: Oregon's 1994 Physician-Assisted Suicide Law trumps the Federal power to regulate doctors!

Justice Kennedy has a strong start for a case with moral, ethical, and Federal implications:

The question before us is whether the Controlled Substances Act allows the United States Attorney General to prohibit doctors from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide, notwithstanding a state law permitting the procedure. As the Court has observed, “Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide.”

The first issue is whether a Federal agency gets to bend and interpret the law without explicit authority from Congress to do so, even though it has wide law-making powers granted to it by Congress. The Attorney General issued an interpretive rule claiming that physicians that used CSA-regulated drugs to assist suicide could have their licenses revoked.

“…assisting suicide is not a ‘legitimate medical purpose’ within the meaning of 21 CFR 1306.04 (2001), and that prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates the Controlled Substances Act. Such conduct by a physician registered to dispense controlled substances may ‘render his registration… inconsistent with the public interest’ and therefore subject to possible suspension or revocation under 21 U. S. C. 824(a)(4). The Attorney General’s conclusion applies regardless of whether state law authorizes or permits such conduct by practitioners or others and regardless of the condition of the person whose suicide is assisted.” 66 Fed. Reg. 56608 (2001).

The SCOTUS didn't like that “interpretation” instead thinking that this was upending the intent of the law.

The regulation uses the terms “legitimate medical purpose” and “the course of professional practice,” ibid., but this just repeats two statutory phrases and attempts to summarize the others. It gives little or no instruction on a central issue in this case: Who decides whether a particular activity is in “the course of professional practice” or done for a “legitimate medical purpose”? Since the regulation gives no indication how to decide this issue, the Attorney General’s effort to decide it now cannot be considered an interpretation of the regulation. Simply put, the existence of a parroting regulation does not change the fact that the question here is not the meaning of the regulation but the meaning of the statute. An agency does not acquire special authority to interpret its own words when, instead of using its expertise and experience to formulate a regulation, it has elected merely to paraphrase the statutory language.

Another question is whether states have any powers at all, which is obvious here, because the CSA explicitly indicates the states have an interest, and powers:

“No provision of this subchapter shall be construed as indicating an intent on the part of the Congress to occupy the field in which that provision operates… to the exclusion of any State law on the same subject matter which would otherwise be within the authority of the State, unless there is a positive conflict between that provision… and that State law so that the two cannot consistently stand together.” §903.

So, what follows is pages of point by point knockdown of a list of reasons the Federal folks cited for their interpretive rule being appropriate, but they all fall:

For all these reasons, we conclude the CSA’s prescription requirement does not authorize the Attorney General to bar dispensing controlled substances for assisted suicide in the face of a state medical regime permitting such conduct.

And we end with a states' rights smackdown:

The Government, in the end, maintains that the prescription requirement delegates to a single Executive officer the power to effect a radical shift of authority from the States to the Federal Government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality. The text and structure of the CSA show that Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance and the congressional role in maintaining it.

Amazing to see this after Kelo, isn't it?

Josh Poulson

Posted Tuesday, Jan 17 2006 09:00 AM

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