University at Buffalo

NEW! Ronald B. Standler Essays

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Physician Assisted Suicide Cases

In 1996, two Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal struck down laws prohibiting assisted suicide. The appeals on these rulings were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court January 8, 1997. The court unanimously overturned both Circuit Court rulings on June 26, 1997. The Washington Post summary and related articles are available on-line. The decisions are available from the Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law School):

Washington Post On-line articles

Ninth Circuit


On November 8, 1994, Oregon voters approved Measure 16, the "Death with Dignity Act". Judge Michael Hogan issued a preliminary injunction against the measure on December 27, 1994, and a permanent injunction on August 3, 1995. On February 27, 1997, A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the challenge to the law. On October 14 the Supreme Court declined to hear the challange to the law (Lee v. Harcleroad, #96-1824). In Oregon, the legislature asked voters to reconsider "Measure 16" in a new vote (ballot measure 51). This measure has been endorsed by the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems and is the focus of a conference at USC: Physician Assistance in Bringing about Death: Can Regulation Work? Measure 51 was defeated by voters on November 4, 1997 so the law will not be repealed.

The Oregon Death with Dignity Act requires that the Oregon Health Division (OHD) monitor compliance with the law, collect information about the patients and physicians who participate in legal physician-assisted suicide, and publish an annual statistical report.

Washington State

On January 25, 1994, Compassion in Dying initiated a legal challenge of Washington State's prohibition against assisted suicide, RCW 9A.36.060. On May 3, 1994, Federal Judge Barbara J. Rothstein rendered a decision declaring the law unconstitutional. On March 9, 1995, a 3-Judge Panel of the Ninth District Court of Appeals overturned the District Court (2-1). On March 6, 1996 the Ninth District Court (en banc) reinstated the District Court ruling. The decision and dissent are available via Deathnet.

Second Circuit

On July 20, 1994, Compassion in Dying filed a complaint for declaratory judgment on behalf of 3 New York physicians and 3 terminally ill patients. On Dec 15, 1994, US District Court Chief Judge Thomas P, Griesa upheld New York law prohibiting assisted suicide (penal law sections 120.30 and 125.15. On April 2, 1996, a 3-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down those laws as relates to physicians and terminally ill patients (Quill v. Vacco). The decision, and concurrence are available from Touro Law Center and Pace University School of Law.

Supreme Court Briefs

NEW! NYS Task Force on Life and the Law: 1997 Supplement to When Death is Sought; Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context This supplement addresses the issues raised in the 2nd and 9th Circuit Court cases.

Links to Related Supreme Court/Assisted Suicide Resources

Return to UB Center for Clinical Ethics Home Page.
Page last updated: 4/9/00