The Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for the nation's only law permitting doctor-assisted suicide to take effect in Oregon.
The justices, without comment or dissent, refused to hear the first challenge to Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. But that doesn't settle the issue, because the state's voters will decide within weeks whether to keep or repeal the law.
Because of the normal lag in legal paperwork, said Eli Stutsman, chief counsel for proponents of the law, "We believe it will be impossible for the existing statute to be implemented between now and the election."
Voter approval of the Death With Dignity Act in November 1994 made Oregon the first state in history to allow a terminally ill, but mentally able, adult to request a prescription for medication "for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner."
Until now, however, court challenges have prevented the law from going into effect. In Tuesday's action, the Supreme Court did not issue any opinion on the validity of the Oregon law but merely left undisturbed a lower-court ruling that the challengers lacked the ability to sue.
The Supreme Court on June 26 upheld assisted-suicide bans in New York and Washington State. The ruling did nothing to bar states from legalizing such help from physicians, but most states have joined New York and Washington in outlawing it.
Oregon voters in 1994 passed a referendum allowing doctors to help mentally competent but terminally ill patients end their lives. The initiative, however, never has taken effect because of court challenges.
In other action, the court:
Traffic checks -- Refused to let Maryland police order all passengers to stay in vehicles stopped for routine traffic violations. Eight months ago, it ruled that police nationwide may order all passengers out of cars in such cases.
The court, without comment, turned away prosecutors' argument that the need to protect police safety outweighs the rights of passengers who want to get out of a car while police detain its driver.
The justices refused to reinstate a Maryland man's disorderly-conduct conviction for disobeying a police officer's order to stay inside a car pulled over for a traffic violation.
Taxes -- Agreed to decide whether Montana and one of its counties must pay the Crow Tribe $58 million in illegally collected taxes on coal mined on the reservation.
FBI -- Refused to order the FBI to purge its file on lawful activities by Lance E. Lindblom of Larchmont, N.Y., the former head of a charitable foundation.
Inmates -- Agreed to decide whether a federal law intended to speed the pace of executions limits claims by Death Row inmates that they are too insane to be put to death. The court said it will hear Arizona prosecutors' arguments that a death row inmate unfairly was given a new chance to argue that he is not mentally competent to be executed.
Term limits -- Turned away arguments by California officials who sought to revive a term-limits law that barred former legislators from ever seeking the same office.
Debtors -- Left intact a fee imposed on a federally chartered corporation that finances government-guaranteed loans for college students. The court turned down arguments by the Student Loan Marketing Association -- known as Sallie Mae -- that the fee enacted by Congress in 1993 is an unconstitutional government taking of its property.
Unions -- Let stand a ruling that says a union contract's arbitration provisions can never nullify an individual worker's right to sue over an employer's alleged discrimination.