Rejecting the Bush administration's argument that doctors should be punished for helping terminally ill patients die, the Supreme Court today upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law.
In a 6-3 vote, justices said a federal drug law does not override the 1997 Oregon law used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people. New Chief Justice John Roberts backed the administration, dissenting for the first time.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself, Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, said that federal officials have the power to regulate the doling out of medicine.
"If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death," he wrote.
The court majority said the administration improperly tried to use a drug law to punish Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of prescription medicines.
"Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for himself, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The ruling was a reprimand to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who in 2001 said that doctor-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that Oregon physicians would be punished for helping people die under the law.
For those like Nora Miller, whose lives have been affected by the law, the victory is important. Her husband, Rick Miller, suffered with small-cell lung cancer, which had spread to his bones, kidneys and brain, for more than seven months. He had lost his voice, endured frequent headaches and pain in his legs, and he was beginning to lose the ability to communicate clearly. His doctor said he had only a few weeks to live.
"Rick basically just said, 'I want to be able to control this process, and I want to be conscious and not a burden to my family at the end, and I can't face the pain and the degradation,'" said Miller, his wife of 31 years.
So late one night, with Nora, their son, Nathan, and Nathan's fiancée beside him at home, the Portland, Ore., resident ate some applesauce mixed with a lethal dose of Seconal prescribed by his doctor and soon fell into a deep sleep as they held his hands.
"It was very peaceful," Miller recalled. "It was really like his body was ready to go. There wasn't much fight left."
Rick Miller died early on Nov. 10, 1999. He was 52.
He was one of more than 200 people since 1997 who have used Oregon's Death with Dignity law -- the only one of its kind in the country -- which allows physician-assisted suicide for some terminally ill patients.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, said in opening statements before the court in October that he believed the court would decide to overturn the Oregon law. The center filed an amicus brief in the case that sided with the U.S. government.
"I think the case is close," Sekulow told reporters after that hearing. "This is literally a life-and-death case. And at the end of the day, the question is, does the federal government have regulatory authority to engage in these life-and-death decisions? And I think the answer in the end will be yes, but it may be yes delayed."