Gonzales v. Oregon

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Gonzales v. Oregon
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
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 allow the US Attorney General to prohibit doctors from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide under state law that permitted the procedure. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is 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 of the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the US Attorney General cannot enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act against physicians who prescribed drugs, in compliance with Oregon state law, to terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives, often referred to as medical aid in dying. It was the first major case heard under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts.[1]


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.[2] The Act legalized medical aid in dying in the state of Oregon.[3] A 1997 referral by the Oregon Legislative Assembly aimed to repeal the Death with Dignity Act but was defeated by a 60% margin.[2]

The law permits physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a competent adult, agreed by two doctors to be within six months of dying from an incurable condition.[3] As of February 29, 2012, the Oregon Public Health Division reported 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."[4]

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.[5]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Majority opinion[edit]

In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Kennedy, the Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit's judgment but for different reasons. The majority opinion did not dispute the power of the federal government to regulate drugs, but it disagreed that the statute in place empowered the attorney general to overrule state laws on the appropriate use of medications allowed.[7]

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.[8]

Dissenting opinions[edit]


Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Roberts and Justice Thomas, argued that under Supreme Court precedent, deference was due to the Attorney General's interpretation of the statute: "If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."[9]


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.[7] He 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.[7]

He had argued for a more limited congressional power under the Commerce Clause in Raich, which focused on intrastate and interstate commerce. In Oregon, by contrast, the case was a matter of the validity of an executive interpretation of that statute.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Greenhouse, Linda (January 8, 2006). "Justices Reject U.S. Bid to Block Assisted Suicide". New York Times. 
  2. ^ a b "Background Brief on Oregon Death with Dignity Act" (PDF). Legislative Committee Services. Oregon State Legislature. September 2014. Retrieved April 3, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b ORS 127.800 - 127.897
  4. ^ "Oregon's Death with Dignity Act – 2013" (PDF). Public.health.oregon.gov. Retrieved 2014-11-17. 
  5. ^ a b "Legal Backgrounder: Supreme Court Considers Challenge to Oregon's Death with Dignity Act – Gonzales v. Oregon and the Right to Die" (PDF). The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Foundation. September 30, 2005. Retrieved April 3, 2016. 
  6. ^ "LII Supreme Court Bulletin: Gonzales v. Oregon (formerly Oregon v. Ashcroft) (04-623)". Legal Information Institute (LII). Cornell University Law School. Retrieved April 3, 2016. 
  7. ^ a b c Stefan, Susan (2016). Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 124–126. ISBN 978-0-19-998119-9. 
  8. ^ 546 U.S. 243 (2006).
  9. ^ 546 U.S. 243 (2006) (Scalia, J., dissenting).
  10. ^ 546 U.S. 243 (2006) (Thomas, J., dissenting).


  1. ^ The case was initially filed as Oregon v. Ashcroft, with Ashcroft as a nominal defendant by virtue of his status as heading the US Department of Justice. Alberto Gonzales later replaced Ashcroft, which changed the name of the case.
  2. Full text of the Supreme Court's decision
  3. ^ Oregon's Death with Dignity statistics are available here.
  4. ^ Justice O'Connor was in the majority although 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, but 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[edit]