False promise

September 29, 2002

JOHN ASHCROFT narrowly won confirmation as attorney general, despite much disagreement with his highly conservative views, because he promised not to impose them on others.

In January of last year, Mr. Ashcroft promised his former colleagues in what was then a Senate divided 50-50 between the parties that he would "uphold all of the laws of the land, no matter his personal opinion," recalled West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. "I take him at his word," said Senator Byrd, in announcing his decision to become one of a handful of Democrats to support the nomination.

But once in office, Mr. Ashcroft's approach has been exactly the opposite of what he promised. Adopting a highly aggressive style, reported on earlier this year by The Sun's Laura Sullivan, he is using his office to try to reshape all of the laws of the land to reflect his personal opinion.

Among the most striking examples is Mr. Ashcroft's crusade to void Oregon's 8-year-old assisted-suicide law. This is not simply a matter of the attorney general seeking a court test of a controversial proposal. He has gone after it like a man on a divine mission, refusing to accept defeat despite repeated rebuffs.

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, the only one of its kind in the nation, has been twice approved by state voters on referendum. It allows physicians to administer a lethal dose of drugs to a terminally ill adult patient of sound mind who makes the request in writing and gets approval from a second doctor.

Opponents of assisted suicide have battled against the law for years, delaying it from taking effect until 1997. But the experience of its first years has been uneventful. Oregon did not become the mecca for death that some had feared. Fewer than 100 patients, all with less than six months to live, took advantage of the opportunity to ease their suffering.

Mr. Ashcroft doesn't believe they should have that right.

After supporting an unsuccessful effort in Congress to overturn the Oregon law, he used his attorney general post to challenge the law on narrow legal grounds. He argued that the Controlled Substances Act, designed to ensnare drug dealers, authorized him to prosecute doctors administering lethal doses of medication.

His argument was swatted down in April by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones, who said Mr. Ashcroft's legal argument was flawed and that he had overstepped his bounds.

"To allow an attorney general -- an appointed executive whose tenure depends entirely on whatever administration occupies the White House -- to determine the legitimacy of a particular medical practice without a specific congressional grant of such authority would be unprecedented and extraordinary," Judge Jones wrote.

Undeterred, Mr. Ashcroft last week appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

An Ashcroft victory, while considered highly unlikely, could have ramifications far beyond Oregon, making all doctors reluctant to administer pain medication for fear the feds would come after them.

Doesn't the Justice Department have something better to do with its time and resources? Have we won the war against terrorism, and drug trafficking, and white-collar crime?

Mr. Ashcroft is living up to his critics' worst fears. Maybe the Senate should take a recount.

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