In breaking news
overnight, the US Supreme Court has upheld, six votes to three, the
constitutionality of an assisted suicide law, with new chief justice
John Roberts voting in the minority.

The law, in the state of Oregon, allows doctors to prescribe, but not
administer, lethal drugs for terminally ill patients. It has been the
subject of controversy
for more than a decade; Oregon’s voters approved it twice by
referendum, but the Bush administration’s former attorney-general, John
Ashcroft, was a determined opponent. In 2001 he tried to use the
federal government’s powers over drug prescriptions to nullify the law,
and it finally ended up in the Supreme Court.

The question for decision was therefore not whether the constitution
protects a patient’s right to die (the court has already ruled that it
does not), nor even the narrower question of whether Congress could
override a state’s right-to-die laws, but whether the federal
attorney-general had that authority under the Controlled Substances Act. The majority found that he did not.

Despite its tight focus, the decision will be a moral boost to
supporters of voluntary euthanasia – which, as in Australia, enjoys
overwhelming public support. Some other states may now follow Oregon’s

The decision is also important as the first test of Roberts’s voting on
moral issues. He dissented, along with the court’s most conservative
justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. But centre-right justices
Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor joined the more moderate group
of justices Souter, Stevens, Breyer and Ginsburg to form the majority.

O’Connor is retiring, and her nominated replacement is Samuel Alito,
who, barring some last-minute upset, will be confirmed by the Senate.
On all accounts he is more conservative than Roberts, so expect
decisions like this one to be closer in future.