Breaking News: SCOTUS Upholds Physician Suicide Law

Ken AshfordBreaking News, Sex/Morality/Family Values, Supreme CourtLeave a Comment

With all this talk about Alito, people seem to forget that the U.S. Supreme Court is actually in session.

CNN is reporting that it just upheld Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law.  Here’s the blurb from SCOTUSBlog:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the U.S. attorney general does not have the power to bar doctors from prescribing lethal drugs for use in doctor-assisted suicide. The ruling, allowing Oregon to continue as the only state to permit that medical practice, divided the Court 6-3; Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., was one of the dissenters — his first dissent.

While this opinion is sure to drive some right-to-lifers nuts, it essentially follows conservative principles of "states’ rights".  Of particular note is Roberts’ dissent, one which gives a slight indication that he might be a results-oriented justice.  The other dissenters were Scalia and Thomas.  Uh-oh.  Now there’s three of them.

Of course, it’s too early to conclude that; hopefully, he wrote a dissent.

UPDATE:  He didn’t pen a dissent, but he joined Scalia’s dissent.  Again, uh-oh.

UPDATE 2:  Okay.  I should have read the majority opinion before I opined.  This isn’t just about states’ rights, but also about the degree of deference given to the executive branch (specifically, the Attorney General) to "interpret" statutes broadly.  Apparently, the majority of the Court was not happy with the AG’s "Interpretive Rule" wherein he used the Controlled Substances Act to go after physicians’ who assist patients with suicide.  This bodes well for other things, seeing as how the executive branch tends to interpret other statutes (i.e., FISA) to mean whatever they want it to mean.  From SCOTUSBlog (again):

The Court conceded that the attorney general does have the authority to write rules for enforcing federal laws on illegal drugs. But, it said, federal law "does not authorize the Attorney General to bar dispensing coontrolled substances for assisted suicide in the face of a state medical regime permitting such conduct."

While allowing doctor-aided suicide to continue when a state allows it, the Court made no sweeping declarations about patients’ or doctors’ rights. The decision, rather, was based almost entirely upon the Court’s interpretation of what Congress had done in giving the federal government the authority to regulate the prescription of drugs by doctors.

In a bow to states’ rights, the majority commented: "The background principles of our federal system…belie the notion that Congress would use such an obscure grant of authority to regulate areas traditionally supervised by the states’ police power." Thus, the Court said, it was unnecessary to determine whether Congress had made a clear statement of intent to interfere with state authority over medical practice, or whether Congress had intended to preempt that state authority.

This is an important point when it comes to Bush’s justification for wiretapping.  Bush’s argument was that Congress’ Authorization for Use of Military Force "implicitly" gave him the power to conduct warrantless wiretaps.  Of course, there is no clear statement to that effect in the AUMF (it merely says that the President shall use "all necessary force" with regard to al Qaeda — something which does not clearly mean that they were conferring domestic wiretapping powers to the President.

The federal Controlled Substances Act "and our case law," the Court said, "amply support the conclusion that Congress regulates medical practice insofar as it bars doctors from using their prescription-writing powers as a means to engage in illicit drug dealing and trafficking as conventionally understood. Beyond this, however, the statute manifests no intent to regulate the practice of medicine generally….Tbe structure and operation of the CSA presume and rely upon a functioning medical profession regulated under the State’s police powers."

"It is difficult," the Court added, "to defend the Attorney General’s declaration that the statute impliedly criminalizes physician-assisted suicide."

I suspect (hope) this will not be the first time that the Supreme Court will have serious doubts about the AG’s interpretations of statutes.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, thus illustrating that he will continue to have a major role to play as a centrist on the Court after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement, which appears to be imminent. O’Connor joined in the Kennedy opinion. Others on the opinion were the Court’s more liberal members, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens.

Dissenting, along with Roberts, were the Court’s two most conservative members, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Scalia, in an opinion joined by the other two dissenters, said the Court distorted the Controlled Substances Act and disregarded "settled principles" on how to interpret statutes. Thomas, in a separate opinion speaking only for himself, accused the majority of making a constitutional decision "under the guise of statutory interpretation."