Beyond D.C.'s reach


Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 10:30 p.m.
A majority of Oregon voters decided that terminally ill people ought to have the option to end their lives painlessly via physician-assisted suicide.
In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to override the wishes of the people of Oregon by using the federal Controlled Substances Act to punish physicians who participate in Oregon's Death With Dignity Act.
Physicians were caught in a state-federal legal squeeze.
But this week, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 6-3 ruling, sided with Oregon. The majority ruled that Ashcroft's action was "beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes" of the controlled substances law.
The ruling, albeit a narrow one, is a victory for states' rights and an important check on the power of the federal executive branch. But it is not the end of the national debate over assisted suicide.
The majority opinion ruled that when Congress approved the Controlled Substances Act, it did "not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance."
The implication being that Congress, if it wishes, might take specific action to prohibit states from carrying out assisted suicides.
And that's a proper forum for this critical debate. Members of Congress make their decisions in Washington, but they have to answer to voters back home.
What the high court said in the Oregon case is that the executive branch cannot arbitrarily apply a convenient federal law to thwart state initiatives.
Whether Congress can step in with a specific prohibition state sanctioned assisted suicide is left for another court to decide, if and when Congress makes that determination.

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