Recent Court Decisions: Washington v. Glucksberg

Criminal Penalties for Assisted Suicide Do Not Offend Due Process Principles; Allowing Terminally Ill Person to Refuse Life Sustaining Medical Treatment Does Not Violate Equal Protection Principles.

Washington v. Glucksberg, 117 S.Ct. ___, 61 CrL 2289, No. 96-110 (1997); Vacco v. Quill, 117 S.Ct. ___, 61 CrL 2316, No. 95-1858 (1997).

In this pair of cases the Court dealt with the constitutionality of two assisted-suicide statutes. In Glucksberg a State of Washington statute made it a crime for a person knowingly to "cause[] or aid[] another person to attempt suicide. " In Vacco a New York statute and common law made it a crime to assist a suicide, although it also permitted a terminally ill person who was mentally competent to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. Both statutes had been declared unconstitutional by the courts below.

The Chief Justice wrote the majority opinion in both cases, joined in his reasoning by four other justices and a mix of concurring opinions that added up to a ruling that neither statue violated the Fourteenth Amendment: the Due Process Clause in the case of the Washington statute and the Equal Protection Clause in the case of the New York statute and common law.

In the case of the Washington statute, the Court ruled that due process does not include a right to end one's life and the concomitant right to assist an intended suicide to carry out the act. The Chief Justice identified a compelling state interest in pr eserving human life, among other things, and the attempt of the state to avoid what would amount to an approval of euthanasia.

In the New York case the Court had to deal with the obvious equal protection issue of proscribing assisted suicide (aided by physicians) while allowing competent persons to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, even though the inevitable result might be death. The statutory- common law scheme drew a distinction between a suicide and a refusal to live through the use of life-sustaining treatment, and the Court said the distinction was rational and not violative of equal protection principles. The rules on suicide and refusal of treatment were non- discriminatory and were applied in an even-handed manner.

The five concurring opinions-by Justices O'Connor, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, all had different rationales but, as noted, supported the constitutional conclusions reached by the Chief Justice in the two cases.

Note: As with all the cases discussed on the web pages of LELP, do not assume the law on this subject is the same in your jurisdiction; check with your legal advisor to determine the law in your own jurisdiction and how it would apply in a particula r case.

Copyright (c) 1997 Law Enforcement Legal Publications

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