WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked the Bush administration's attempt to punish doctors who help terminally ill patients die, protecting Oregon's one-of-a-kind assisted-suicide law.
It was the first loss for Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the court's most conservative members -- Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- in a long but restrained dissent.
The administration improperly tried to use a federal drug law to pursue Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of prescription medicines, the court said in a rebuke to former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The 6-3 ruling could encourage other states to consider copying Oregon's law, used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people in that state. The decision, one of the biggest expected from the court this year, also could set the stage for Congress to attempt to outlaw assisted suicide.
"Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority -- himself, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
With this decision Kennedy showed signs of becoming a more influential swing voter after O'Connor departs. He is a moderate conservative who sometimes joins more liberal members on cases involving such things as gay rights and capital punishment.
In some ways, the decision was an anticlimactic end to the court's latest clash over assisted suicide.
The case was argued in October on Roberts' second day on the bench, and he strongly hinted that he would back the Bush administration. Some court watchers had expected O'Connor to be the decisive vote, which could have delayed the case until her successor was on the court. The Senate is set to vote soon on nominee Samuel Alito.
Justices have dealt with end-of-life cases before, most recently in 1997 when the court unanimously ruled that people have no constitutional right to die. That decision, by then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, left room for states to set their own rules.
The Tuesday ruling, and dissents, were tinged with an understanding about the delicate nature of the subject. The court itself is aging and the death of Rehnquist this past September after a yearlong fight with cancer was emotional for the justices.
Scalia said in his dissent that the court's ruling "is perhaps driven by a feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none of the federal government's business. It is easy to sympathize with that position."
At the same time, Scalia said federal officials have the power to regulate doctors in prescribing addictive drugs and "if the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."
He was joined in the dissent by Thomas and Roberts. Roberts did not write separately to explain his vote. Thomas also wrote his own dissent.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, "The president remains fully committed to building a culture of life, a culture of life that is built on valuing life at all stages."
The court majority dealt harshly with Ashcroft, who in 2001 declared that Oregon doctors who helped people die would be violating the federal Controlled Substances Act. Lower courts prevented any punishment while Ashcroft's authority was contested by the state of Oregon, a physician, pharmacist and terminally ill patients.
Kennedy said the "authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design."
Oregon's law, which was passed by voters, covers only extremely sick people -- those with incurable diseases and who are of sound mind. At least two doctors must agree the ill have six months or less to live before they can use the law.
"For Oregon's physicians and pharmacists, as well as patients and their families, today's ruling confirms that Oregon's law is valid and that they can act under it without fear of federal sanctions," said state Solicitor General Mary Williams.
The ruling backed a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Ashcroft's "unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide."
The court's ruling was not a final say on federal authority to override state doctor-assisted suicide laws -- only a declaration that the current federal scheme did not permit that. However, it still could have ramifications outside of Oregon.
"This is a disappointing decision that is likely to result in a troubling movement by states to pass their own assisted suicide laws," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which backed the administration.
The case is Gonzales v. Oregon, 04-623.