Gonzales v. Oregon

Supreme Court Rules 6-3
in Favor of Oregon's Landmark Law

Read the Court's Ruling.


Former Attorney General John Ashcroft (left)
and his successor Alberto Gonzales (right)
actively pursued the overturning of
Oregon's landmark Death with Dignity Act.

Statements by Peg Sandeen,
Executive Director of Death with Dignity National Center

"The Supreme Court today ruled 6 to 3 in favor of the people of Oregon. The case of Gonzales v. Oregon came about because of the actions of former Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001 who ordered Federal Drug Enforcement Agents to prosecute physicians and pharmacists for practicing under Oregon's Death with Dignity law. The Supreme Court's ruling today affirms the right of Oregonians to govern their own end-of-life, pain management and palliative care choices.

"Today's ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, validates Oregon's Death with Dignity law and will prohibit federal agents from investigating and prosecuting physicians and pharmacists who practice ethically and legally under the Oregon law. Today's opinion allows advances in palliative and end-of-life care to continue.

"This case was simple. The Justice Department sought to end Oregon's 11-year old Death with Dignity Law and to assert federal powers that properly belong to states such as Oregon. The law was strongly supported by the majority of Oregon voters, sustained by two federal lawsuits, and given broad support from two-thirds of the American people.

"More and more Americans are demanding a greater say in how they live and how they die. Gonzales v. Oregon is a historic milestone that will protect the people's rights as patients. The Justices of the Supreme Court got it right when they stated that personal medical decisions are best made by patients and physicians, not by lawyers and legislators.

"Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the Gonzales v. Oregon decision will end attacks against Oregon's law and the national death with dignity movement. Oregon can anticipate attempts in Congress to pass legislation barring physician-assisted dying, perhaps as a touchstone issue for the upcoming mid-term elections.

"Congressional efforts to trump the federal courts and the people of Oregon will require constant vigilance on the part of Death with Dignity National Center. Any anti-dignity law from Congress would signal a significant shift from the federalist distribution of power among the state governments toward the federal government's increasingly centralized power. It would also reverse years of progress in improving palliative and end-of-life care.

"The favorable ruling by the Supreme Court now permits other states to move forward in replicating Oregon's landmark law. Timing is crucial. DDNC's Oregon+One Program will actively support the state most likely to enact a death with dignity law, whether through a state legislature or through a citizen initiative."

Background

On May 26, 2004, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in Oregon v. Ashcroft, upheld the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. On July 12, Attorney General John Ashcroft appealed the ruling and requested a rehearing. On August 11, the Circuit Court rejected the rehearing request; and on November 9, Ashcroft filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. He then announced his retirement from the Department of Justice.

In February 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Department of Justice's request for a hearing in Gonzales v. Oregon (formerly Oregon v. Ashcroft). Oral arguments were heard on October 5, 2005, and a ruling is expected by June 2006. Read the transcript of oral arguments.

Legal Question

"Whether the Attorney General has permissibly constured the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 801 et seq., and its implementing regulations to prohibit the distribution of federally controlled substances for the purposes of facilitating an individual's suicide, regardless of a state law purporting to authorize such distribution."

U.S. Department of Justice Argument

1. The Controlled Substances Act establishes a comprehensive and uniform nation system for regulating controlled substances, and the Attorney General's interpretive ruling implementing the Act is supported by the overwhelming weight of authority.

2. The [Ninth Circuit] court of appeal's rejection of the Attorney General's interpretive ruling was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the applicable principals of statutory construction. Read the Justice Department Brief.

State of Oregon Argument

1. The Attorney General's threatened action would nullify the DWDA.

2. The CSA does not itself prohibit the uses of controlled substances permitted by the DWDA, and it does not authorize the U.S. Attorney General to do so.

3. The Court should reject this unprecedented attempt by an agency official to resolve a disputed issue of social and medical policy that is reserved to the States and should reemphasize the vital role State sovereignty plays in our federal system and the need for Congress to speak clearly when it intends to interfere with that role. Read Oregon's Brief.

Death with Dignity National Center Argument

Eli D. Stutsman, JD, is a board member of Death with Dignity National Center and co-author of Oregon's Death with Dignity law. As Counsel of Record, Stutsman represents the physician and pharmacist named in the Supreme Court case.

1. The Attorney General's enforcement directive violates the plain language of the Controlled Substances Act, oversteps the bounds of the Attorney General's statutory authority, and contravenes Congress' express legislative intent.

2. The States, not the Attorney General acting through the Controlled Substances Act, regulate medicine.

3. The power to regulate commerce between the States does not authorize federal usurpation of medical practice in the States, or the manner in which Oregonians die. Read the Stutsman Brief.

What Happens Next?

It's unlikely the positive ruling in Gonzales v. Oregon will end attacks against Oregon's law and the national death with dignity movement. Attempts in Congress to trump the Supreme Court and pass legislation barring physician-assisted dying nationwide will be met by a strenuous counter-attack on the part of the Death with Dignity National Center.

The favorable ruling by the Supreme Court now allows other states to move forward in launching Oregon-type laws. Through its Oregon+One program, the DDNC will lead the death with dignity movement by helping states launch campaigns in defense of end-of-life self determination. The greater the state monitoring and standardization of physician-assisted dying, the fewer the patients who are subject to unsafe and unmonitored practices.

Perhaps the most important outcome from the Supreme Court's ruling is Oregonians' knowledge that their will has been respected and that they have the peace of mind that comes with choices instead of constrictions. The ruling also helps further nationwide advances in palliative care and hospice usage.

Medical Effects

  • Oregon doctors may now continue providing safe, regulated and state monitored assistance to dying patients.
  • Oregon patients with terminal illness have access to the peace of mind associated with end-of-life options.
  • Nationwide, open discourse and important advances will continue in pain management and palliative and end-of-life care.

Legislative Effects

  • DDNC's Oregon+One Program identifies and supports the next state most likely to pass an Oregon-type law.
  • DDNC partners with other national organizations to counter efforts in Congress to prohibit physician-assisted dying through a national law.

Legal Effects

  • The legality of Oregon's law is affirmed.
  • More than 200 years of states' authority over medical practice is upheld.
  • Federal agents are prohibited from launching physician-assisted dying investigations.

Additional Resources

Amicus Curiae / Friend of the Court Briefs
Because Gonzales v. Oregon is a landmark Supreme Court case, several organizations have filed amicus briefs both in support and in opposition to the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. Below is a selection of the amici in support of the Oregon law.

Useful Links

Media Resources

DDNC legal and medical experts are available to the media to answer questions about next steps. Contact us by e-mail, or call 503-228-4415.

Defend dignity. Take action.

You are the key to ensuring well-crafted Death with Dignity laws for all Americans. With your financial and volunteer help, the Death with Dignity National Center, a 501(c)(3), non-partisan, non-profit organization, has been the leading advocate in the death with dignity movement. Member contributions helped us pass a new Death with Dignity law in Washington, defend the Oregon law, and provide education and outreach programs for the vitality of the death with dignity movement.

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