In a stinging rebuke to the Bush administration, the Supreme Court sided with Oregon in upholding the nation's only physician-assisted suicide law.
Oregon voters have twice upheld a law that permits the terminally ill to take an overdose of drugs if two doctors agree with the diagnosis and conclude the patient is of sound mind. To date, more than 200 terminally ill patients in Oregon have used the law, and now millions may be affected by the Supreme Court's decision.
Some patients, such as Lovelle Svart, who has terminal lung cancer, applauded the decision. Svart said she was "speechless and excited" about today's ruling.
Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy rebuffed efforts by the nation's top law enforcement official, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to criminally charge doctors who helped people end their lives. According to Gonzales, federal drug laws did not permit or condone doctor-assisted suicide.
Justice Kennedy disagreed, holding that the federal government did not have the authority to prosecute physicians. The majority vote also included Justices John Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Opponents of Oregon's law had argued that doctors are in the business of preserving life, not terminating it. That resonated with Justice Antonin Scalia, who in a strongly worded dissent said the federal government had the power to intervene, and most assuredly could prevent "the prescription of drugs to produce death."
Justice Scalia was joined in his dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts' vote came as a surprise in the first controversial case of this term. A strong proponent of states' rights, Chief Justice Roberts was expected to support Oregon's right-to-die law but instead backed the administration's efforts to prosecute physicians.
This is an issue that has personally affected members of the Supreme Court. Justices Stevens and Ginsburg have both fought and beaten cancer. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist succumbed to thyroid cancer only months ago.
After the high court's decision, other states are now expected to follow Oregon's statutory model and pass their own physician-assisted suicide laws.