Ruling on the United States' only law that allows doctors to assist in hastening the death of a patient, the court said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot sanction or hold Oregon doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses, as the state's voter-approved Death With Dignity Act allows.
"The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician assisted suicide," wrote Judge Richard Tallman in the 2-1 opinion by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He said Ashcroft's action "far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law."
The Oregon law, approved by voters in 1994, lets doctors prescribe a lethal dose of narcotics to terminally ill patients who request assistance.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could decide whether to allow assisted suicide.
The state of Oregon maintained it had the power to declare for itself what types of medical procedures are allowed. But the Justice Department concluded that suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose."
Ashcroft had cited the federal Controlled Substances Act when he issued a directive threatening to revoke the licenses of doctors who aid suicides with narcotics. The act declares what drugs doctors may prescribe.
In a sharp rebuke, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in Portland, Oregon, ruled in April 2002 that the Controlled Substances Act does not give the federal government the power to say what is a legitimate medical practice.