The people of Oregon tried to send a clear message to Washington that they had their own philosophy on physician-assisted suicide.
Twice, in 1994 and 1997, Oregon voters approved a law that allows a terminally ill patent to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two doctors must confirm that the patient has less than six months to live and that he or she is mentally competent to make the request. The patient, not the doctor, must administer the fatal dose.
The law survived a federal court challenge, a repeal attempt and two override efforts by Congress. There had been dire warnings that if this law were allowed to stand, the sick and the lame would be dispatched in great numbers and as a matter of convenience. But state health records show that only 91 people, most suffering from cancer, have killed themselves using the law.
Still, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft felt compelled to take a ham-fisted approach to batting down Oregon's law from Washington.
Ashcroft issued a directive Nov. 6 that would have banned lethal prescriptions as illegitimate under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Any doctor who wrote a prescription for lethal drugs as allowed by Oregon law, would be banned by Ashcroft from writing prescriptions for any drug -- in effect making it impossible for the doctor to practice.
This week U.S. District Judge Robert Jones slapped the attorney general's hand. Hard.
The judge speaks
"The citizens of Oregon, through their democratic initiative process, have chosen to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate on physician-assisted suicide for themselves by voting -- not once, but twice -- in favor of the Oregon act,'' Jones wrote.
"To allow an attorney general -- an appointed executive whose tenure depends entirely on whatever administration occupies the White House -- to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice without a specific congressional grant of such authority would be unprecedented and extraordinary."
Ashcroft has shown a disturbing inconsistency as attorney general. For a man who describes himself as a conservative, he is more than willing to stretch the law to -- and past -- its limits when it suits his purposes or his philosophy.
That is not what he is sworn to do, and it is not what he said he would do during his Senate confirmation hearings.
The Justice Department says it hasn't decided whether to appeal Judge Jones' ruling. The best thing all around would be for Ashcroft to drop his Oregon quest.
On the other hand, perhaps he should take this case to the Supreme Court of the United States.
It would again demonstrate his ability to let ideology interfere with his legal duty. And it would give the Supreme Court an opportunity to lecture the "conservative" attorney general on the perils of overreaching.