WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court stepped back into the right-to-die debate yesterday, agreeing to hear the Bush administration's challenge to a unique state law allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die more quickly.
The decision to review Oregon's law during the session beginning in October sets up another fight over whether states or the federal government should decide the question.
The same nine justices sided with states in 1997, but four years later then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that federal drug laws prohibited doctors from prescribing lethal doses. An appeals court rejected that interpretation, and the Bush administration is appealing the decision.
Since the Oregon law took effect in 1997, more than 170 people have used it to end their lives. The law is meant only for extremely sick people -- those with incurable diseases who two doctors agree have six months or less to live and are of sound mind.
Governor Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, a Democrat, said the Bush administration is trampling on state rights.
"While politics has driven the appeals of the lower court's decisions on this law, I am confident that now that politics are put aside, the Supreme Court will ultimately side with the rights of Oregonians as citizens of a sovereign state," he said.
But a physicians' group that opposes Oregon's law said it hopes the court will toss out the law on the grounds that giving lethal prescriptions is not a legitimate medical practice.
"We don't believe that any state should be permitted to unilaterally exempt itself from federal law forbidding the misuse of federally controlled substances to overdose vulnerable patients," said Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a spokesman for Physicians for Compassionate Care.
A panel of the San Francisco-based US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Oregon in May, saying Ashcroft's "unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide."
Ashcroft filed the appeal in November, on the day his resignation was announced by the White House.
Oregon voters passed the law in 1994 but it was placed on hold because of legal challenges. In 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that individuals had no constitutional right to die, upholding state bans on physician-assisted suicide.
The opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, however, said individual states could decide to permit the practice.
Prodded by that ruling, Oregon voters affirmed the state's physician-assisted suicide law in 1997 for a second time. Attorney General Janet Reno later said states could regulate their own doctors, and rejected a request to use federal drug laws to prosecute physicians who help patients die.
In 2001 Ashcroft's Justice Department said it would use the federal Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors who prescribe overdoses, because physician-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose."
The issue now before the Supreme Court is whether the federal law authorizes the Justice Department to sanction doctors, and, if so, whether Congress has the authority to prohibit assisted suicide if a state chose to allow it.
The Oregon challenge will be the second right-to-die case to go before the Supreme Court this year. Last month, justices rejected a legal challenge to Florida's "Terri's Law," a measure to keep Terri Schiavo, who is severely brain-damaged, on life support over the objections of her husband. Schiavo, whose legal fight is continuing, could be taken off life support as early as today.
In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill people can refuse treatment that would otherwise keep them alive, but declined in the 1997 case to extend that constitutional right to obtaining medication that would put them to death.