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Vacco v. Quill
Supreme Court of the United States (1996)


Even assuming that these statutes are to be read together to create a statutory classification scheme that treats similarly situated persons differently, such schemes still fulfill the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause as enunciated by this Court and are constitutional.

As noted by the Quill court below, "[t]he general rule is that state legislation carries a presumption of validity if the statutory classification is traditionally related to a legitimate state interest." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 440 (1985)." 80 F.3d at 725. Left unmentioned by the Quill panel was this Court's restatement of the principles underlying rational-basis review as succinctly summarized in Heller v. Doe By Doe, 113 S.Ct. 2637, 2642 (1993). There, this Court reaffirmed the fact that:

rational-basis review in equal protection analysis is not a license for courts to judge the wisdom, fairness, or logic of legislative choices [n]or does it authorize the judiciary to sit as a superlegislature to judge the wisdom or desirability of legislative policy determinations made in areas that neither affect fundamental rights nor proceed along suspect lines. For these reasons, a classification neither involving fundamental rights nor proceeding along suspect lines is accorded a strong presumption of validity. Such a classification cannot run afoul of the Equal Protection Clause if there is a rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose. Further, a legislature that creates these categories need not actually articulate at any time the purpose or rationale supporting its classification. Instead, a classification must be upheld against equal protection challenge if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification moreover the burden is on the one attacking the legislative arrangement to negate [sic] every conceivable basis which might support it.

Id. at 2642-2643 (internal quotes and citations omitted, emphasis supplied).

A host of rational legislative policy determinations underlie the decisions by these states to prohibit physician assisted suicide. In fact, many of these state interests and policy decisions are outlined, albeit rejected, by the majority opinion for the Ninth Circuit, 70 F.3d 816-831, and by the dissent filed in that case. Id. at 851-855. Those state interests include: (1) a state's interest in preserving life as recognized by this Court in Cruzan, 497 U.S. at 282; (2) a state's interest in preventing suicide; (3) a state's interest in assuring that third parties do not persuade persons contemplating suicide to do so; (4) a state's interest in safeguarding the well-being and interests of those close to the person who commits suicide; (5) a state's interest in protecting the integrity of and reliability upon the medical profession as one persons may seek reliable assistance.

Amici would note for the Court on this occasion one central and compelling state interest and policy that should alone compel the rejection of respondents' cause. Proponents of protecting the practice of physician assisted suicide, especially as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, consistently point to the importance of respecting the autonomous decision-making power of the individual. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, such a policy provides no reasonable rationale why this choice should be provided only to the terminally ill. It is illogical to suggest that any other class of citizens may be prohibited from exercising this choice if it is granted to the terminally ill.

Some will suggest that society ought to grant this choice of suicide only to the terminally ill out of respect for their unique plight and that the host of state interests identified heretofore continue to apply to the able-bodied among us. This is the very sort of decision which our constitutional structure confers upon the legislative branch, not the courts. In this context, the legislatures have determined that such an option ought not to be granted to the terminally ill for they recognize that "[s]ingling out the terminally ill as a class of people who "deserve" to have their suicidal impulses respected is logically incoherent unless one presupposes that, in some objective sense, their live[s are] not worth living. But, as a civilized society, we make no such claim with respect to any human being." Chopko, Assisted Suicide, 70 Notre Dame L.Rev. at 576.

The ancient lineage, outlined above, of the approach to the terminally ill found in traditional Jewish sources has made its way into our society's laws by way of its common Judeo-Christian heritage. While "[a]ncient lineage of a legal concept does not give it immunity from attack for lacking a rational basis," this Court has recognized that the very fact "[t]hat the law has long treated the classes as distinct suggests that there is a commonsense distinction between [the two categories at issue. Heller, 113 S.Ct. at 2646. Thus, these laws of the State of New York and the State of Washington must be found to survive rational-basis review.

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