The NY Times reported here on oral arguments made in Gonzalez v. Oregon, the United States Supreme Court case testing the limits of federal authority over decisions made at the state level regarding medical care. In 2001, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft determined that Oregon’s assisted-suicide legislation was not a legitimate medical practice and thus doctors who prescribe the deadly drugs would be in violation of the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”).

In Oregon v. Ashcroft, 368 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2004), the Ninth Circuit ruled against the federal authorities, holding that attempting to criminally prosecute physicians if they help terminally ill patients commit suicide in accordance with Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act exceeded federal authority, stating as follows:

To be perfectly clear, we take no position on the merits or morality of physician assisted suicide. We express no opinion on whether the practice is inconsistent with the public interest or constitutes illegitimate medical care. This case is simply about who gets to decide. All parties agree that the question before us is whether Congress authorized the Attorney General to determine that physician assisted suicide violates the CSA. We hold that the Attorney General lacked Congress’ requisite authorization. The Ashcroft Directive violates the “clear statement” rule, contradicts the plain language of the CSA, and contravenes the express intent of Congress.” (Emphasis added.)

This case goes to the heart of the “states’ rights or New Federalism” debate often separating Republicans and Democrats. What’s ironic is that in this instance it’s a Republican administration advocating for more federal authority – an argument usually reserved for Democrats – and directly contrary to the “New Federalism” philosophy usually advocated by Republicans. Stay tuned for more.

Source: Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog