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High court allows physician-assisted suicide

(Page 2 of 2)

Scalia was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas.

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In rejecting the so-called Ashcroft directive, the majority justices said the CSA is aimed at policing drug abuse, addiction, and narcotics trafficking rather than providing an avenue for federal micromanagement of state efforts to regulate healthcare and end-of-life issues.

Congress intended to leave it to the states to define what is a legitimate medical purpose, the majority said. That reading of the federal drug laws is consistent with the broader constitutional structure of the government as an organization of dual sovereigns with both federal and state spheres of power, Justice Kennedy said.

The government's position in defending the Ashcroft directive would "effect a radical shift of authority from the states to the federal government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality," Kennedy wrote. "The text and structure of the CSA show that Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance and the congressional role in maintaining it."

Oregon's Death With Dignity Act was first approved by ballot initiative in 1994. The law took effect three years later after voters defeated a second ballot initiative aimed at repealing the measure.

The Death With Dignity Act sets out a procedure in which a mentally competent individual who is diagnosed as terminally ill may ask a doctor to provide medication to help end his or her life in a "humane and dignified manner."

As the law was about to take effect in 1997, some federal officials raised questions about whether the Death With Dignity Act might violate provisions of federal drug laws. The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration at the time said it would and that the federal government could take action against doctors who - in the view of federal officials - abuse their prescription privileges under the federal narcotics-control regime.

Attorney General Janet Reno overturned that determination, saying the US could not take action against physicians acting in compliance with the Oregon law.

After Ashcroft became attorney general in 2001, he overturned Ms. Reno's decision and issued what is known as the Ashcroft directive. In it, he declared that anyone administering federally controlled drugs to assist in a suicide would be in violation of the Controlled Substances Act.

Oregon immediately filed suit in federal court challenging the Ashcroft directive. Both a federal judge and a divided panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Oregon. The appeals court ruled that Ashcroft exceeded his authority in issuing the directive.

In affirming the appeals court, the majority justices said they had reached a "common-sense conclusion" that CSA does not empower the attorney general to impose a federal bar on Oregon doctors engaged in assisting suicide "in the face of a state medical regime permitting such conduct."