Thursday, May 27, 2004

Appeals Court Chastises Ashcroft

Back in 1994 the voters of Oregon passed a ballot initiative to establish the first ever legal assisted suicide law in the nation. The Oregon law allows adults with incurable diseases who are likely to die in six months to obtain lethal drugs from their doctors. The doctors may prescribe but not administer the drugs, and they are granted immunity from liability.

In 1997, while he was still just a senator from Missouri, John Ashcroft wrote then Attorney General Janet Reno requesting she declare that physician-assisted suicide involving doctors violated federal law. She declined, saying that individual states should be allowed to regulate their own doctors. When Mr. Ashcroft became attorney general in 2001, he reversed Ms. Reno's position and issued a directive saying that doctors who prescribe lethal drugs to patients under the Oregon law could face federal sanctions and prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act.

A challenge to Ashcroft's directive was brought in 2001 by a doctor, a pharmacist, several terminally ill patients, and the State of Oregon. Yesterday the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case and said in effect that Ashcroft is apparently for limited federal powers except when he's AGAINST limited federal powers, like in this case, where he thinks he should be able to tell everyone what's morally right because he's a sanctified born-again.

The majority of judges on the Ninth Circuit used unusually pointed language to rebuke Ashcroft, saying he had overstepped his authority in trying to block enforcement of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act.

"The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers," Judge Richard C. Tallman wrote for the majority, "interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide and far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law." (New York Times coverage here.)

The case was simply about who gets to decide, and the court ruled that it ain't Mr. Ashcroft (who's also been angling, you might know it! to get his hands around every uterus in the land too).

Judge Tallman, who wrote the majority opinion for the Ninth Circuit, is considered one of the conservatives on that court, which might have some impact on whether Ashcroft decides to appeal to The Supremes.

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