High Court Revisits Suicide Debate

Justices, from left, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, John Roberts, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer, Oct. 3, 2005.
The Supreme Court is revisiting the emotionally charged issue of physician-assisted suicide in a test of the federal government's power to block doctors from helping terminally ill patients end their lives.

Oregon is the only state that lets dying patients obtain lethal doses of medication from their doctors, although other states may pass laws of their own if the high court rules against the federal government. Voters in Oregon have twice endorsed doctor-assisted suicide, but the Bush administration has aggressively challenged the state law.

The case, the first major one to come before the new chief justice, John Roberts, will be heard by justices touched personally by illness. Three justices — Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens — have had cancer, and a fourth — Stephen Breyer — has a spouse who counsels young cancer patients who are dying.

CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen said the case offers a glimpse at whether Roberts is going to side with strong federal power, which is what the Bush Administration is pitching in this case, or states rights, which is Oregon's argument.

"This is one of the biggest cases of the term, by far. It's really going to end up being Chief Justice Roberts' first big test and it's going to be our first chance to begin to evaluate what kind of justice he is going to be," Cohen said.

In 1997 the court found that the terminally ill have no constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide. O'Connor provided a key fifth vote in that decision, which left room for state-by-state experimentation.

CBS News KXL radio correspondent Doug Carter reports out of Portland, Ore., that state attorney general Hardy Myers said the heart of the case is "what is the relative authority of the federal government versus our states' in the regulation of the doctor-patient relationship and the practice of medicine."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who once wrote about the "earnest and profound debate" over doctor-assisted suicide, died a month ago after battling untreatable cancer for nearly a year.

The appeal is a turf battle of sorts, not a constitutional showdown. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, a favorite among the president's base of religious conservatives, decided in 2001 to pursue doctors who help people die.

And since then, "there are a lot of people in a lot of other states who are waiting on this case," Cohen said. "I bet that if the High Court sides with Oregon we are quickly going to see other similar laws go on the books around the country. So the stakes really couldn't get much higher."