Attorney General John Ashcroft drew the ire of Oregon officials with one of his last official acts: Asking the U.S. Supreme Court to set aside the state's -- and nation's only -- assisted-suicide law.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski argued Tuesday that state voters have twice endorsed the right of terminally ill patients to die more quickly and that "it's past time for this administration to focus on ways to work with Oregon -- not against us."
Ashcroft's challenge had been expected since May, when a lower court ruled the federal government could not punish Oregon doctors who prescribed lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.
While not as prominent as abortion, the issue is an important one for conservative Christians, who helped President Bush win a second term last week. The government waited until Tuesday, the final day possible, to file paperwork at the high court.
Oregon's law, known as the Death With Dignity Act, lets patients with less than six months to live request a lethal dose of drugs after two doctors confirm the diagnosis and determine the person's mental competence to make the request.
A co-author of Oregon's law, Portland attorney Eli Stutsman, said Ashcroft's appeal to the Supreme Court is "politically inspired" and he said he is optimistic the court won't even agree to hear the case.
"We have won this case on the legal issues and we'll continue to win it on legal issues," Stutsman said. "The strength of our legal position is that the states have always regulated the practice of medicine."
Since 1998, more than 170 people have used Oregon's assisted suicide law to end their lives. The Bush administration has argued that assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.
"Killing patients is not medical care," said James Bopp, a Right-to-Life lawyer based in Terre Haute, Ind. "What you have in Oregon is the equivalent of putting a gun to a patient's head and pulling the trigger. They just use drugs to do it."
The Supreme Court probably will decide early next year whether it will review the case. The court has been hearing cases now with eight members, because Chief Justice William Rehnquist is under treatment for thyroid cancer.
The high court has dealt with right-to-die cases before. Justices held in 1997 that while Americans have no constitutional right to assisted suicide, states may decide the issue for themselves. And in 1990, the court ruled that terminally ill people can refuse life-sustaining medical treatment.
Eric Rakowski, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said Ashcroft's appeal appears to be more of a statement of solidarity with religious conservatives than a serious legal challenge.
"Maybe it's just a matter of showing them that this administration takes their interests to heart, knowing that the appeal is unlikely to get anywhere," Rakowski said.
Oregon is the only state that has an assisted suicide law, approved by voters in 1997, although leaders in other states have considered laws of their own. A bill is expected soon in the California Legislature.
At issue for the high court now would be the bounds of a federal law declaring what drugs doctors may prescribe. Traditionally states, not the federal government, regulate medical practices.
A federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco have ruled that federal officials do not have the power to circumvent the Oregon law to punish health professionals in Oregon.