By Michael Kahn
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. Appeals Court on Wednesday ruled that a Bush administration directive seeking to stop Oregon doctors from helping terminally ill patients commit suicide was unlawful and unenforceable.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped his authority when he ordered Oregon doctors to ignore a state law that allowed them to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients who wished to die.
Since enacted in 1998, the law has enabled at least 170 people to commit suicide, state officials said. At the moment, Oregon is the only U.S. state to permit physician-assisted suicide.
"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 and far exceeds the scope of his authority under federal law," the court said in a 2-1 opinion.
The Department of Justice said it was reviewing the ruling on the directive that had threatened to revoke prescription- writing licenses for physicians and pharmacists who filled life-ending drug orders.
Supporters of the Oregon law, officially entitled the Death with Dignity Act and twice approved by voters, cheered the ruling, saying it would help other states implement similar suicide laws.
Under the law, terminally ill patients must get certification from two doctors stating they are of sound mind and have less than six months to live. A prescription for lethal drugs is written by the doctor and administered by the patients themselves.
Terminally ill cancer patient Don James, 78, who has testified in the case for assisted suicide, said the appellate court's ruling would allow him to control the time and manner of his death.
"I can't understand anyone that would try to counter the will of the people of Oregon twice," James said.
Ashcroft issued a directive in 2001 declaring that assisting suicide was not a legitimate medical purpose under the Controlled Substances Act, and saying that prescribing federally controlled drugs for that purpose was against the law.
Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers challenged that order and a federal court judge in 2002 blocked the Bush Administration directive.
Ashcroft later took his case to the appellate court, which agreed with Oregon that the federal government had no authority to intervene in state medical regulation.
In a dissenting opinion, however, Judge J. Clifford Wallace said because the directive interprets an agency regulation rather than the Controlled Substances Act, the court should give the attorney general's order "substantial" deference.
"(The directive) neither exceeds the attorney general's statutory authority under the Controlled Substances Act nor pushes the limit of congressionally authority," Wallace wrote. (Additional reporting by Reed Stevenson in Seattle and Dan Cook in Portland)