June 26, 1997 - Olympia--Attorney General Christine Gregoire said today that while the United States Supreme Court said there's no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, it left the door open for Washington citizens to change the law that currently bans such practices.
In two 9-0 rulings, the court upheld a Washington law banning physician assisted suicide and a similar law in the state of New York.
Gregoire noted the court recognized there are 700 years of history and tradition making it a crime to assist in a suicide. "The court wasn't about to reverse all that history and tradition and strike down our ban on assisted suicide," she said.
In explaining the basis for the court's decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, "Throughout the nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society."
"We all have tremendous compassion for terminally ill individuals and their families and I'm sure the debate will continue here in Washington and elsewhere," Gregoire said. "If the state chooses to change its policy, I see nothing in today's court decision to say that change would fail on constitutional grounds."
All nine justices agreed with the result, although several wrote concurring opinions explaining their reasons for doing so.
The Supreme Court's ruling ends three and a half years of litigation over the Washington statute, which was first enacted in 1854. The lawsuit began in January 1994, when a non-profit corporation, Compassion in Dying, three patients and four physicians filed suit in U. S. District Court in Seattle seeking to invalidate the statute. In May of 1994, Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled that the statute violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. It was the first such ruling ever issued by a federal court.
In March, 1995, a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned Judge Rothstein's ruling, but that decision was itself overturned in March of 1996 by a decision of an eleven judge panel of the Ninth Circuit. The U. S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in January of this year.