Attorney General Seeks Delay on Assisted Suicides

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana’s attorney general asked a judge Wednesday to postpone the effect of a decision allowing doctor-assisted suicide, saying the state intends to file a formal appeal.

A Helena judge legalized the controversial procedure last week, ruling that mentally competent terminally ill Montana residents have a right to doctor-assisted suicide.

With the decision, Montana joined Oregon as the only states where it is legal, advocates say. It will become legal in Washington next year when a new law goes into effect.

But Attorney General Mike McGrath said the final decision in Montana should be up to the state Supreme Court.

His office will be filing an appeal of Judge Dorothy McCarter’s decision, he said. Until then, McGrath is asking McCarter to delay the effect of her ruling.

McGrath said he doesn’t know if doctor-assisted suicide is completely legal following the decision.

“I would think that people should proceed very cautiously,” McGrath said.

Kathryn Tucker, an attorney for the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, said the judge made it clear the procedure is constitutional.

“The judge’s order was entered Friday. In my view it has declared that the Montana Constitution protects this choice and no physician in Montana could be prosecuted for writing a prescription for a patient,” Tucker said.

Tucker said physicians in Montana can turn to the precedent set by doctors in Oregon who established a standard of care for the procedures. The doctors would prescribe medications that can be self-administered by patients to bring about a peaceful death.

McGrath leaves his post at the end of the year, when he will become chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court. He said he would recuse himself from the assisted suicide case when it reaches the court since he has been involved in it.

McGrath said his office has been fighting the case because it has a duty to defend state laws challenged in court. The challenge does not mean, he said, that he is personally for or against such procedures.

“The attorney general has a responsibility to defend laws and the constitutionality of laws passed by the Legislature,” McGrath said.

Democrat Steve Bullock will replace McGrath as attorney general in January. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The original case was brought by a terminally ill Billings man who has since died, four physicians who treat terminally ill patients and the nonprofit group Compassion & Choices.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill patients have no constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide, but did nothing to prevent states from legalizing the process.

McCarter’s ruling has sparked interest on both sides of the debate in Montana.

Roman Catholic Bishop George Thomas of Helena said he was disappointed in the ruling.

“This decision echoes disturbing actions taken in the states of Oregon and Washington, and sadly this blatant disregard for human life has now been imported into our own region,” he said.

At least one state lawmaker is proposing legislation that would explicitly allow doctor-assisted suicide in Montana.