Justices will review a lower court ruling that said the U.S. government cannot sanction or hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing overdoses under Oregon's voter-approved Death with Dignity Act. Since 1998, more than 170 people — most with cancer — have used the law to end their lives.
Arguments will be heard in the court's next term, which begins in October.
"The case will be a huge test for the court," says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "A clash between the justices' law-and-order mentality and their usual deference to states' rights versus federal power. Also, it's a huge deal for the administration, which made this fight a priority under the tenure of John Ashcroft, the former attorney general."
Ashcroft filed the appeal last November, on the day his resignation was announced by the White House, arguing that physician-assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that doctors take an oath to heal patients, not help them die.
Oregon countered by saying that regulation of doctors generally has been the sole responsibility of the states. Ashcroft has no authority under the federal Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors because Congress intended the law only to prevent illegal drug trafficking, the state argued.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Oregon last May.
"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.
In 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that individuals had no constitutional right to die, upholding state bans on physician-assisted suicide. In an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court suggested it was up to the individual states to decide whether to permit or ban the practice.
The issue now before the high court is whether Congress could step in to prohibit assisted suicide if a state chose to allow it, and, if so, whether the federal Controlled Substances Act authorizes the Justice Department to do so.
Oregon voters approved the law in 1994 and overwhelmingly affirmed it three years later when it was returned to the ballot following a failed legal challenge that stalled its implementation.
The law allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two doctors must confirm the diagnosis and determine the patient to be mentally competent to make the request.
The Oregon challenge is the second right-to-die case to come before the Supreme Court this year. Last month, justices rejected Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's appeal to keep Terri Schiavo, who is severely brain-damaged, on life support over the objections of her husband.
Schiavo, whose legal fight is continuing, was scheduled to be taken off life support as early as Tuesday.
In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill people may refuse treatment that would otherwise keep them alive, but declined in the 1997 case to extend that constitutional right to obtaining medication that would put them to death.
The case is Gonzales v. Oregon, 04-623.
In other Supreme Court action: