Ashcroft tangles laws on
assisted death ...
The issue: Doctors who prescribe legal
drugs to help patients die will be punished.
Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempt to block Oregon's assisted-suicide law places his ideology at odds with his posture as a champion of state's rights. By authorizing federal agents to punish doctors who prescribe federally controlled drugs to help the terminally ill die when they choose, Ashcroft is allowing government regulations to interfere with deeply personal decisions that should be left to patients and their families.
The action by the attorney general -- who during his contentious confirmation hearings vowed that he would not let his personal beliefs stand in the way of upholding the law -- goes through the back door to usurp the will of Oregon's voters. While allowing the practice, Ashcroft's order to investigate doctors with the intent of revoking their drug licenses if they prescribe narcotics to help patients die, places the law in check. Similarly, other states that consider assisted-suicide measures, such as Hawaii did three years ago, would likely put legislation on hold since they would face the same restrictions.
The directive reverses a 1998 decision by Ashcroft's predecessor, Janet Reno. She overruled a Drug Enforcement Administration determination that doctors could not prescribe deadly doses of drugs covered by federal law. Reno reasoned that the statute was never meant to apply to medical practices.
Ashcroft, then a U.S. senator from Missouri, criticized Reno for "bending the rules." In that light, his order raises questions about his motives in undercutting Oregon's law in contradiction of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it was up to individual states to decide whether assisted suicide should be permitted and under what circumstances. The high court has refused to hear a challenge of Oregon's law, which was twice approved by voters. Under the Death With Dignity Act, doctors may provide but not administer a lethal prescription to terminally ill adults. Two physicians must agree that the patient has less than six months to live, is capable of making decisions and has chosen to die.
At the request of Oregon's attorney general, a federal judge has temporarily blocked Ashcroft's order. The state is seeking to recover its right to regulate medicine. The underlying issue, however, remains unresolved. To some religious groups, conservatives and physicians, assisted suicide is murder. To proponents, it is helping nature to take its inevitable course.
Reconciling these divergent views may be impossible, but the decision is fundamentally private, best left to patients, families and health professionals and not to politicians, policymakers or attorneys general.
... and privacy for attorneys
The issue: A ruling will allow monitoring
of communication between attorneys and clients.
ATTORNEY General John Ashcroft has received, in recent legislation, most of the tools he requested to fight terrorism. However, he is circumventing Congress by authorizing the federal agents to eavesdrop on conversations between suspects of terrorism and their attorneys. Such a breach of attorney-client confidentiality almost certainly would have been rejected by Congress, if it had been asked. It should be forbidden by the nation's judges.
Without consulting Congress, Ashcroft has issued a rule allowing the monitoring of attorney-client conversations and interception of mail when "reasonable suspicion exists to believe that an inmate may use communications with attorneys or their agents to facilitate acts of terrorism."
Communications between inmates and their attorneys have long been exempt from routine monitoring of social phone calls and visits at federal prisons. The Ashcroft rule not only ends that exemption but extends eavesdropping to include anyone "held as witnesses, detainees or otherwise" by federal authorities. The government has detained more than 1,100 people since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and 100 are being considered for monitoring of conversations with their attorneys.
Permission to monitor the attorney-client correspondence or conversation is provided not by a judge but by the attorney general, according to the new rule. The monitoring is to be conducted by "taint teams" that are not to disclose what they hear to federal prosecutors or investigators without a judge's permission.
Information thus gained is not supposed to be used in criminal court proceedings against the target of the monitoring, according to the rule. Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker calls that a "firewall" between attorney-client privilege and the prosecution, but the knowledge that Big Brother is listening clearly will inhibit the free flow of information between attorneys and clients.
The rule has prompted protests from civil libertarians and is certain to be challenged in court at the earliest hint that a federal prosecutor feels the urge to intrude on attorney-client communications. In the unlikely event that a judge allows such monitoring, Congress may need to step in and force the attorney general to abide by the fundamentals of American jurisprudence.
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