Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


OLYMPIA -- The State Attorney General's Office today announced it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals limiting the application of Washington's ban on assisted suicide.

"This is a significant issue for the nation," said Attorney General Christine Gregoire. "It is a watershed issue of public policy that requires the review and analysis of our nation's highest court."

The role of the Washington Attorney General's Office in this case has been to defend the state law, which was initially enacted by the legislature in 1854.

Gregoire added that the legal issue in the case is whether public policy should be made by the state legislature or by 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."

The opinion by the Court of Appeals states that a statute prohibiting assisted suicide cannot be applied in situations involving physicians who prescribe medications to their mentally competent, terminally ill adult patients. The 9th Circuit Court's opinion does not affect the prohibition in assisting suicide in other situations.

The decision runs counter to those of other courts that have looked at this issue. Appellate courts in California and Michigan have ruled that there was no constitutional right to assisted suicide. A federal district court in New York came to the same conclusion in a decision that was appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule on the matter.

The 9th Circuit decision will not be final until the state's appeal is resolved. The U. S. Supreme Court could decline to take the case, or it could accept the case and schedule oral argument, most likely sometime during the term that will begin next October.

"The law remains on the books pending appeal," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Bill Williams.

The first step in the appeals process will come when the Attorney General's Office asks the 9th Circuit not to transfer the case back to the District Court where it was originally filed.

The state's "Motion to Stay the Mandate," and in effect, keep the case pending at the 9th Circuit until the Supreme Court decides whether to take the case, will be filed this week at the 9th Circuit Clerk's Office in San Francisco.

The formal process for seeking Supreme Court review is through a "Petition for Certiorari." The last date for filing a petition in this case is June 4 - 90 days after the 9th Circuit issued its opinion. However, the Attorney General's Office said it expects to file the petition in the next 30 days. The plaintiffs in the law suit would then have 30 days to respond to the state's petition, and that should allow the Supreme Court to decide whether to take the case before its current term ends on June 30.

The case began in 1994 when Compassion in Dying, a non-profit organization, along with four physicians and three now-deceased terminally-ill individuals, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the state statute against promoting or assisting in another person's suicide.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled in May of 1994 that the plaintiffs did have a constitutional right to assistance in committing suicide. That ruling was appealed by the state to the 9th Circuit. A three-judge panel of the court overturned Rothstein's ruling 2-1 in March of last year. At the plaintiffs' request, a larger 11-judge panel was convened last year to reconsider that decision.

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Contact: Bill Williams, Sr. Assistant Attorney General, (360) 753-4960

Dean R. Owen, AG's Public Affairs Office, (360) 586-1883