Washington v. Glucksberg
Decided June 26, 1997, 521 U.S. 702

State prohibitions on assisted suicide are constitutional.



A. Issues Discussed: Right to die

 B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Washington's prohibition against "causing" or "aiding" a suicide offend the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution?

A. Background:

"It has always been a crime to assist a suicide in the State of Washington. The State's present law makes '[p]romoting a suicide attempt' a felony, and provides: 'A person is guilty of [that crime] when he knowingly causes or aids another person to attempt suicide.'

Respondents, four Washington physicians who occasionally treat terminally ill, suffering patients, declare that they would assist these patients in ending their lives if not for the State's assisted suicide ban. They, along with three gravely ill plaintiffs who have since died and a nonprofit organization that counsels people considering physician assisted suicide, filed this suit against petitioners, the State and its Attorney General, seeking a declaration that the ban is, on its face, unconstitutional. They assert a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause which extends to a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician assisted suicide.

Relying primarily on Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, and Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, the Federal District Court agreed, concluding that Washington's assisted suicide ban is unconstitutional because it places an undue burden on the exercise of that constitutionally protected liberty interest.

The en banc Ninth Circuit affirmed."

On certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Kathryn L. Tucker argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief were David J. Burman, Kari Anne Smith, and Laurence H. Tribe.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Cameron Clark, Karen E. Boxx, and Steven R. Shapiro; for Americans for Death with Dignity et al. by John R. Reese and Page R. Barnes; for the American Medical Student Association et al. by John H. Hall; for the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy by Janet Benshoof and Kathryn Kolbert; for the Coalition of Hospice Professionals by Gerald A. Rosenberg and Frances Kulka Browne; for the Council for Secular Humanism et al. by Ronald A. Lindsay; for Gay Men's Health Crisis et al. by Andrew I. Batavia; for the National Women's Health Network et al. by Sylvia A. Law; for 36 Religious Organizations, Leaders, and Scholars by Barbara McDowell and Gregory A. Castanias; for the Washington State Psychological Association et al. by Edward C. DuMont; for Bioethicists by Martin R. Gold and Robert P. Mulvey; for Law Professors by Charles H. Baron, David A. Hoffman, and Joshua M. Davis; for State Legislators by Sherry F. Colb; and for Julian M. Whitaker, M. D., by Jonathan W. Emord.

William L. Williams, Senior Assistant Attorney General of Washington, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Christine O. Gregoire, Attorney General, and William Berggren Collins, Senior Assistant Attorney General.

Acting Solicitor General Dellinger argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Waxman, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Preston, Irving L. Gornstein, and Barbara C. Biddle.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of California et al. by Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, Robert L. Mukai, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Alvin J. Korobkin, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Thomas S. Lazar, Deputy Attorney General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Gale A. Norton of Colorado, Robert A. Butter-worth of Florida, Michael J. Bowers of Georgia, James E. Ryan of Illinois, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, J. Joseph Cur ran, Jr., of Maryland, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Jeffrey R. Howard of New Hampshire, Dennis C. Vacco of New York, Pedro R. Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, Charles Molony Condon of South Carolina, Mark W. Barnett of South Dakota, Charles W. Burson of Tennessee, and James S. Gilmore III of Virginia; for the State of Oregon by Theodore R. Kulongoski, Attorney General, Thomas A. Balmer, Deputy Attorney General, Virginia L. Linder, Solicitor General, and Stephen K. Bushong, Assistant Attorney General; for Wayne County, Michigan, by John D. O'Hair and Timothy A. Baughman; for the District Attorney of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, by E. Michael McCann, pro se, and John M. Stoiber; for Agudath Israel of America by David Zwiebel and Morton M. Avigdor; for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging et al. by Joel G. Chefitz and Robert K. Niewijk; for the American Center for Law and Justice by Jay Alan Sekulow, James M. Henderson, Sr., Walter M. Weber, Keith A. Fournier, John G. Stepanovich, and Thomas P. Monaghan; for the American Geriatrics Society by John H. Pickering and Joseph E. Schmitz; for the American Hospital Association by Michael K. Kellogg and Margaret J. Hardy; for the American Medical Association et al. by Carter G. Phillips, Mark E. Haddad, Paul E. Kalb, Katherine L. Adams, Kirk B. Johnson, and Michael L. Ile; for the American Suicide Foundation by Ellen H. Moskowitz, Edward R. Grant, and John F. Cannon; for the Catholic Health Association of the United States by James A. Serritella, James C. Geoly, Kevin R. Gustafson, Thomas C. Shields, Peter M. Leibold, and Charles S. Gilham; for the Catholic Medical Association by Joseph J. Frank, Sergio Alvarez-Mena III, and Peter Buscemi; for the Christian Legal Society et al. by Edward J. Larson, Kimberlee Wood Colby, and Steven T. McFarland; for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., Susan D. Reece Martyn, Henry J. Bourguignon, and Phillip H. Harris; for the Family Research Council by Cathleen A. Cleaver, Mark A. Rothe, and Edward R. Grant; for the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America et al. by Richard B. Stone; for the Legal Center for Defense of Life, Inc., et al. by Dwight G. Duncan and Michael P. Tier-ney; for the National Association of Prolife Nurses et al. by Jacqulyn Kay Hall; for the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities et al. by James Bopp, Jr., Thomas J. Marzen, Daniel Avila, and Jane E. T. Brockmann; for the National Hospice Organization by E. Barrett Pretty- -man, Jr.; for the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled, Inc., et al. by James Bopp, Jr., Thomas J. Marzen, Daniel Avila, and Jane E. T. Brockmann; for the National Right to Life Committee, Inc., by James Bopp, Jr., and Richard E. Coleson; for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, Inc., by Leonard F. Zandrow, Jr., and Calum B. Anderson; for the Project on Death in America et al. by Robert A. Burt; for the Rutherford Institute by Gregory D. Smith and John W. Whitehead; for the Schiller Institute by Max Dean; for the United States Catholic Conference et al. by Mark E. Chopko; for Senator Orrin Hatch et al. by Michael W. McConnell; for Members of the New York and Washington State Legislatures by Paul Benjamin Linton and Clarke D. Forsythe; for Bioethics Professors by George J. Annas; for Gary Lee, M. D., et al. by James Bopp, Jr., Bary A. Bostrom, and Richard E. Coleson; and for Richard Thompson by Mr. Thompson, pro se, and Richard H. Browne.


"Washington's prohibition against 'caus[ing]' or 'aid[ing]' a suicide does not violate the Due Process Clause.

An examination of our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices demonstrates that Anglo American common law has punished or otherwise disapproved of assisting suicide for over 700 years; that rendering such assistance is still a crime in almost every State; that such prohibitions have never contained exceptions for those who were near death; that the prohibitions have in recent years been reexamined and, for the most part, reaffirmed in a number of States...

In light of that history, this Court's decisions lead to the conclusion that respondents' asserted 'right' to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause...

To hold for respondents, the Court would have to reverse centuries of legal doctrine and practice, and strike down the considered policy choice of almost every State. Respondents' contention that the asserted interest is consistent with this Court's substantive due process cases, if not with this Nation's history and practice, is unpersuasive. The constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition...[is] not simply deduced from abstract concepts of personal autonomy, but [is] instead grounded in the Nation's history and traditions, given the common law rule that forced medication was a battery, and the long legal tradition protecting the decision to refuse unwanted medical treatment...

The constitutional requirement that Washington's assisted suicide ban be rationally related to legitimate government interests, is unquestionably met here... The relative strengths of these various interests need not be weighed exactingly, since they are unquestionably important and legitimate, and the law at issue is at least reasonably related to their promotion and protection."

The United States Supreme Court reversed the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; the Supreme Court reversed in a 0-9 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.