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Vacco v. Quill
Supreme Court of the United States (1996)


The two federal circuit courts below -- the Ninth Circuit in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, 79 F.3d 790 (9th Cir., March 6, 1996) (en banc), request for rehearing denied, 85 F.3d 1440 (9th Cir. June 12, 1996); and the Second Circuit in Quill v. Vacco, 80 F.3d 716 (2d Cir., April 2, 1996) -- found as-applied constitutional infirmities in Washington and New York state statutes that make it a crime to "aid" another individual in committing or attempting to commit suicide. The two rulings reached similar (though not identical) bottom lines, but arrived at their destinations through different constitutional routes.

The Ninth Circuit found a due process "liberty interest in choosing the time and manner of one's death," 79 F.3d at 798; and determined, in the context of "competent, terminally ill adults who wish to hasten their deaths by obtaining medication prescribed by their doctors," that such due process liberty interest outweighed any countervailing interest asserted by the state. Id. at 838.

The Second Circuit, in contrast, relied on the equal protection clause in holding that physicians are constitutionally permitted to "prescribe drugs to be self-administered by mentally competent adults who seek to end their lives during the final stages of a terminal illness." 80 F.3d at 718. Such persons, reasoned the court, are "similarly circumstanced" to final-stage terminally ill patients who enjoy the statutory and common law right to hasten their death by authorizing termination of life support, id. at 729; and, the court concluded, there is no legitimate state interest rationally served by distinguishing between the two categories. Id. at 730-31.

Both grounds of decision, Agudath Israel submits, are wrong. The better of the legal argument, we believe, is with the dissenting judges in the Ninth Circuit en banc decision (79 F.3d at 839 (Beezer, J.), 857 (Fernandez, J.) & 857 (Kleinfeld, J.)); with the dissenting judges in the Ninth Circuit's subsequent rejection of a request to have the en banc decision reheard by the full circuit court (85 F.3d at 1440 (O'Scannlain, J.), 1446 (Trott, J.)); with the Ninth Circuit's earlier panel opinion in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, 49 F.3d 585 (9th Cir. 1995); with the Second Circuit's rejection of any fundamental due process right to assisted suicide (80 F.3d at 723-25); with the district court's decision in Quill v. Koppell, 870 F.Supp. 78 (S.D.N.Y. 1994); and with the Michigan Supreme Court in People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436 (1994), cert. denied 115 S. Ct. 1795 (1995). With respect to the due process argument, we share the view of these judges and courts that this Court's broad dictum in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992) -- identifying "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life" as being "at the heart of liberty" -- does not elevate assisted suicide to the status of a constitutionally protected right. With respect to the equal protection argument, we contend, as have many courts, legislative and executive bodies, medical associations and bioethical experts, that there is a sound basis of legal distinction between what one commentator has termed "letting the patient die" and "making the patient die." S.L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief 236 (Basic Books 1993).

Mindful of the admonition that "[a]n amicus brief which does not serve [the purpose of bringing relevant matter to the attention of the Court that has not already been brought to its attention by the parties] simply burdens the staff and facilities of the Court and its filing is not favored," Rule 37.1, Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States (1990), we will not belabor the reasons we think the constitution does not create any right to assisted suicide; they are well articulated in the decisions and opinions cited in the preceding paragraph, and are sure to be further developed by the petitioners themselves.

The focus of our argument, therefore, will be not on why we think the decisions below are bad law, but why we think they are dangerous law. The legalization of assisted suicide, even in the narrow contexts addressed by the decisions below, has the potential to lead to tragic abuse (Point I, infra). Moreover, the Ninth and Second Circuit rulings portend a far-reaching relaxation of laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia, in contexts very different than those in which the two cases arose (Point II, infra). Perhaps most troubling, the two courts' determination that lives of diminished "quality" are entitled to diminished constitutional protection ignores some important lessons of 20th century history and sends a chilling message that could have a profoundly negative impact on society at large (Point III, infra).

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