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Gonzales v. Oregon

Gonzales v. Oregon
Argued October 5, 2005
Decided January 17, 2006
Full case name Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General, et al., v. Oregon, et al.
Docket nos. 04-623
Citations 546 U.S. 243 (more)
126 S.Ct. 904, 2006 U.S. LEXIS 767, 74 USLW 4068, 06 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 433, 2006 Daily Journal D.A.R. 608, 19 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 49
Prior history Summary judgment granted to plaintiffs in part, permanent injunction entered, sub nom. Oregon v. Ashcroft, 192 F. Supp.2d 1077 (D. Ore. 2002); on appeal, treated as transferred, petitions for review granted, injunction continued, 368 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2003); cert. granted, sub. nom. Gonzales v. Oregon, 125 S.Ct. 1299 (2005)
The Controlled Substances Act does not empower the Attorney General of the United States to prohibit doctors from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide under state law permitting the procedure. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Kennedy, joined by Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent Scalia, joined by Roberts, Thomas
Dissent Thomas
Laws applied
Ore. Rev. Stat. § 127.800 et seq. (2003) (Oregon Death With Dignity Act)
21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq. (Controlled Substances Act)
66 Fed. Reg. § 56608 (2001)

Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243 (2006), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that the United States Attorney General could not enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act against physicians who prescribed drugs, in compliance with Oregon state law, for the assisted suicide of the terminally ill. It was the first major case heard under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts.[1]


  • Background of the case 1
  • The court's decision 2
    • Scalia's dissent 2.1
    • Thomas's dissent 2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6

Background of the case

In 1994, voters in the state of Oregon approved Measure 16, a ballot initiative that established the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, with 51.3% of voters supporting it and 48.7% opposing it. The Act legalized physician-assisted suicide. A 1997 referral by the Oregon Legislative Assembly aimed to repeal the Death with Dignity Act, but was defeated by a 60% margin, with 220,445 votes cast against it. The law permits physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a patient agreed by two doctors to be within six months of dying from an incurable condition. As of February 29, 2012, the Oregon Public Health Division reports that since "the law was passed in 1997, a total of 935 people have had DWDA prescriptions written and 596 patients have died from ingesting medications prescribed under the DWDA."[2]

On November 9, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued an Interpretive Rule that physician-assisted suicide was not a legitimate medical purpose, and that any physician administering federally controlled drugs for that purpose would be in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. The State of Oregon, joined by a physician, a pharmacist, and a group of terminally ill patients, all from Oregon, filed a challenge to the Attorney General's rule in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The court ruled for Oregon and issued a permanent injunction against the enforcement of the Interpretive Rule. The ruling was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court's decision

In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit's judgment, but employed different reasoning. The majority opinion did not dispute the power of the federal government to regulate drugs, but disagreed that the statute in place empowered the U.S. Attorney General to overrule state laws determining what constituted the appropriate use of medications that were not themselves prohibited. The court found that it was inappropriate to apply Chevron deference toward the Attorney General's "interpretive rule" that controlled substances could not medically be used for the purpose of physician-assisted suicide.

Scalia's dissent

Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, argued that under the Supreme Court precedent deference was due to the Attorney General's interpretation of the statute. He wrote that "[i]f the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death".

Thomas's dissent

In addition to joining Justice Scalia's dissent, Justice Thomas also filed a brief dissent in which he argued that the court's majority opinion was inconsistent with the reasoning in Gonzales v. Raich. Thomas also dissented in that decision, in which five of the six justices in the majority in Oregon found broad federal authority under the Controlled Substances Act for Congress to forbid the growth of medical marijuana. Thomas had argued for a more limited congressional power under the Commerce Clause in Raich, which focused on intrastate vs. interstate commerce. In Oregon, by contrast, the case was instead a matter of the validity of an executive interpretation of that statute.

See also


  1. ^  
  2. ^ "Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2013" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-11-17. 


  1. ^ The case was initially filed as Oregon v. Ashcroft, with John Ashcroft, then Attorney General, as a nominal defendant by virtue of his status as the head of the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Alberto Gonzales was substituted for Ashcroft following his appointment to that position.
  2. Full text of the Supreme Court's decision
  3. ^ Oregon's Death with Dignity statistics are available here.
  4. ^ Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was in the majority, though she had announced her retirement on July 1, 2005, pending confirmation of a successor. She remained on the Court when oral argument was heard and when the case was considered, though her vote would not have counted if her successor was seated before the Court formally announced its decision. Samuel Alito was still pending confirmation by the Senate to replace O'Connor when the ruling was handed down.

External links

  • Full text (HTML with links to precedents, statutes, and U.S. Constitution)
  • Supreme Court Upholds Oregon Suicide Law, Washington Post, January 17, 2006.
  • Legal analysis of the case
  • Transcript of oral arguments
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