Laying the groundwork for a major constitutional confrontation, the state of Washington declared Monday it will appeal a groundbreaking federal appeals court decision permitting physician-assisted suicide.
Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire said she would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the emotion-laden question because it “is a watershed issue of public policy that requires the review and analysis of our nation’s highest court.”
The move temporarily blocks enforcement of a 8-3 decision handed down three weeks ago by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. It held that a mentally competent, terminally ill adult has a constitutional right to utilize a doctor’s assistance in hastening his or her death.
The groundbreaking decision created a storm of protest from religious leaders, as well as from doctors and hospitals, even as supporters of assisted suicide applauded the decision as an act of compassion that allows the terminally ill to die without prolonged pain and suffering.
But on Monday, Gregoire said the substance basis of Washington’s appeal - to be filed within the next 30 days - would not involve moral issues, but questions of states’ rights.
In a formal public statement, Gregoire reiterated Washington’s position that the state should be able to make public policy in this arena, not the federal judiciary.
“Throughout this litigation, we have defended the statute passed by the legislature, and sought to protect the ability of our legislature - or the people directly through the initiative process - to change the law,” Gregoire said. “That will be the basis of our appeal.”
Washington’s legal ban on physician-assisted suicide, which the 9th Circuit decision would void, has been on the books since 1854.
Legal scholars on both sides as well as the Roman Catholic Church, which has an historic interest in the euthanasia question, predicted that the high court probably would accept the case when its next term begins in October, although it could take the case before its current term ends on June 30.
Thanks to the appeals court ruling, Americans in the nine Western states covered by the 9th circuit decision have a constitutional right to seek assisted suicide, while those in the other 41 states do not. When faced with such a clear dispute on an issue of constitutional law, the Supreme Court usually must intervene to resolve the dispute.
Meanwhile, some of the nation’s most powerful religious organizations, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals on Monday renewed their vows to file their own briefs with the high court, if it takes the case.