Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Oregon assisted suicide law upheld

In my post below about the probable confirmation of Alito, we were debating whether a justice's ideology should be considered when deciding to confirm or not. I think this ruling points out just why ideology is the most important consideration, if a candidate is otherwise qualified.

This case hinged on the interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act and whether the act's provision that controlled substances be used for "legitimate medical purposes" allowed the Attorney General to criminalize the prescribing of drugs for assisted suicide. You can read through the text of the statue here and the opinion here.

If you read the majority and dissenting opinions, you see that both Kennedy, writing for the majority, and Scalia in dissent, take the same wording and the same precedents on how to interpret these rules and regulations and come to completely opposite conclusions. After reading both opinions, it's clear to me that the major difference here is ideology, not legal principle.

Kennedy writes that the Attorney General's use of the "legitimate medical purposes" language to block prescriptions of drugs that the state of Oregon has authorized clearly falls outside his statutory powers. Reading the statue, it's clear that the intent of Congress was to prohibit the illegal trafficking of controlled substances, and only to regulate a doctor's prescription writing when the prescriptions are being used to promote illegal trafficking of controlled substances. Kennedy cites earlier court opinions which describe how federal rules and regulations have to be interpreted, and comes to the conclusion that the Attorney general's interpretation is not protected by precedent.

Scalia writes that the use of the language "legitimate medical purposes" is sufficient for the Attorney General to issue the rule, and that his interpretation is protected by the court's earlier decisions and requires deference. He goes on to deconstruct Kennedy's reasoning and also to show that assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose.

Reading both opinions, and wading through all the legal minutiae, it's easy to see how in murky cases like this it's easy and probably unavoidable that a justice would use his or her own opinion of whether something is right or wrong and then find the legal basis to support that opinion, even if it's not done consciously. You can see this also in a separate dissent by Thomas that uses different decisions to support the Attorney General's position. It think it's very naive to think that all 9 of these people were dispassionately weighing the law with none of their own personal morality affecting their judgment. That's why you have to consider a justice's ideology when deciding whether to confirm or not.

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1 comment:

John Howard said...

I can solve the whole thing. Instead of having a Supreme Court,they can just bring these cases to me and I will decide them. Since we're going to have a dictatorship anyway, I might as well be the dictator.