A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft far exceeded his authority by interfering with Oregon's law on physician-assisted suicide.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco said that Ashcroft's order to the Drug Enforcement Administration to pursue and possibly revoke the licenses of physicians who prescribe lethal prescriptions "may not be enforced" because it goes against the will of Congress and contradicts federal law.
Ashcroft's 2001 order, even though it has been enjoined from enforcement pending appeal, caused a widespread "chilling effect" on the willingness of Oregon physicians to consult with or prescribe lethal drugs to patients seeking to die, said George Eighmey, executive director of Oregon-based Compassion in Dying.
"They told me they didn't want Ashcroft coming after them," Eighmey said. He said that in the past year, 142 people asked to start the process of assisted suicide, but only 42 went through with it.
Oregon's law is unique in the nation. The Bush administration has argued that "assisted suicide is not medicine." An assistant attorney general, Robert McCallum, said last year that a "caring society" should help the terminally ill cope with their problems, "not abandon or assist in killing them."
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said Wednesday that "we are reviewing the court's decision, and no determination has been made as to what the government's next step will be."
In his opinion for the 2 to 1 majority, Judge Richard Tallman concluded: "The Attorney General's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician assisted suicide and far exceeds the scope of his authority."
Tallman said the court -- often described as the most liberal appeals panel in the country -- was expressing no opinion on whether physician-assisted suicide "is inconsistent with the public interest or constitutes illegitimate medical care. This case is simply about who gets to decide."
The court found that Ashcroft has no such right.
It added "that the Attorney General has no specialized expertise in the field of medicine" and that he "imposes a sweeping and unpersuasive interpretation" of the Controlled Substances Act, which "directly conflicts with that of his predecessor," Attorney General Janet Reno.
In his dissent, Judge J. Clifford Wallace argued that Ashcroft's order neither exceeds his authority under the Controlled Substances Act nor challenges the will of Congress and should, therefore, be given "substantial deference."
Wednesday's ruling follows a stinging rebuke of Ashcroft delivered in 2002 by a federal judge in Portland, Ore. There, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones, noting that the people of the state have twice voted in favor of the suicide law, said that Ashcroft was trying to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate."
Oregon voters first approved the Death With Dignity Act in 1994, and then, after a failed legal challenge, approved it again in 1997.
In the first six years of the law, through 2003, 171 people died of legal lethal prescriptions, according to Compassion in Dying, which provides assistance to Oregon residents who want to find doctors who will prescribe lethal prescriptions. The group said that this figure represents about one-tenth of 1 percent of the people who died the state during the period.
About 550 physicians in Oregon have worked with patients seeking to die, either as consultants or by prescribing lethal prescriptions, Eighmey said.
He said he talked with 12 doctors in the past year who were afraid to be involved in any aspect of physician-assisted suicide for fear of losing their license.