521 U.S. 793 (1997), 95-1858, Vacco v. Quill

Docket Nº:95-1858
Citation:521 U.S. 793, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834, 65 U.S.L.W. 4695
Party Name:VACCO, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW YORK, et al v. QUILL et al.
Case Date:June 26, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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521 U.S. 793 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834, 65 U.S.L.W. 4695

VACCO, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW YORK, et al

v.

QUILL et al.

95-1858

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 1997

Argued January 8, 1997

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT IF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In New York, as in most States, it is a crime to aid another to commit or attempt suicide, but patients may refuse even lifesaving medical treatment. Respondent New York physicians assert that, although it would be consistent with the standards of their medical practices to prescribe lethal medication for mentally competent, terminally ill patients who are suffering great pain and desire a doctor's help in taking their own lives, they are deterred from doing so by New York's assisted-suicide ban. They, and three gravely ill patients who have since died, sued the State's Attorney General, claiming that the ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The Federal District Court disagreed, but the Second Circuit reversed, holding (1) that New York accords different treatment to those competent, terminally ill persons who wish to hasten their deaths by self-administering prescribed drugs than it does to those who wish to do so by directing the removal of life-support systems, and (2) that this supposed unequal treatment is not rationally related to any legitimate state interests.

Held:

New York's prohibition on assisting suicide does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 799-809.

(a) The Equal Protection Clause embodies a general rule that States must treat like cases alike but may treat unlike cases accordingly. E. g., Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 216. The New York statutes outlawing assisted suicide neither infringe fundamental rights nor involve suspect classifications, e. g., Washington v. Glucksberg, ante, at 719-728, and are therefore entitled to a strong presumption of validity, Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 319. On their faces, neither the assisted-suicide ban nor the law permitting patients to refuse medical treatment treats anyone differently from anyone else or draws any distinctions between persons. Everyone, regardless of physical condition, is entitled, if competent, to refuse unwanted lifesaving medical treatment; no one is permitted to assist a suicide. Generally, laws that apply evenhandedly to all unquestionably comply with equal protection. E. g., New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568, 587. This Court disagrees with the Second Circuit's submission that ending or refusing lifesaving medical treatment "is nothing more nor less than assisted suicide." The distinction

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between letting a patient die and making that patient die is important, logical, rational, and well established: It comports with fundamental legal principles of causation, see, e. g., People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436, 470-472, 527 N.W.2d 714, 728, cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1083, and intent, see, e. g., United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 403-406; has been recognized, at least implicitly, by this Court in Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 278-280; id., at 287-288 (O'Connor, J., concurring); and has been widely recognized and endorsed in the medical profession, the state courts, and the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, which, like New York's, have permitted the former while prohibiting the latter. The Court therefore disagrees with respondents' claim that the distinction is "arbitrary" and "irrational." The line between the two acts may not always be clear, but certainty is not required, even were it possible. Logic and contemporary practice support New York's judgment that the two acts are different, and New York may therefore, consistent with the Constitution, treat them differently. Pp. 799-808.

(b) New York's reasons for recognizing and acting on the distinction between refusing treatment and assisting a suicide—including prohibiting intentional killing and preserving life; preventing suicide; maintaining physicians' role as their patients' healers; protecting vulnerable people from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide toward euthanasia—are valid and important public interests that easily satisfy the constitutional requirement that a legislative classification bear a rational relation to some legitimate end. See Glucksberg, ante. Pp. 808-809.

80 F.3d 716, reversed

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. O'Connor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Ginsburg and Breyer, JJ., joined in part, ante, p. 736. Stevens, J., ante, p. 738, Souter, J., post, p. 809, Ginsburg, J., ante, p. 789, and Breyer, J., ante, p. 789, filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

Dennis C. Vacco, Attorney General of New York, pro se, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Barbara Gott Billet, Solicitor General, and Daniel Smirlock and Michael S. Popkin, Assistant Attorneys 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

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Attorney General Preston, Barbara C. Biddle, and Ann Hubbard.

Laurence H. Tribe argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Peter J. Rubin, Kathryn L. Tucker, David J. Burman, Kari Anne Smith, and Carla A. Kerr. [*]

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Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

In New York, as in most States, it is a crime to aid another to commit or attempt suicide,[1] but patients may refuse even

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lifesaving medical treatment.[2] The question presented by this case is whether New York's prohibition on assisting suicide therefore violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We hold that it does not.

Petitioners are various New York public officials. Respondents Timothy E. Quill, Samuel C. Klagsbrun, and Howard A. Grossman are physicians who practice in New York. They assert that although it would be "consistent with the standards of [their] medical practice[s]" to prescribe lethal medication for "mentally competent, terminally ill patients" who are suffering great pain and desire a doctor's help in taking their own lives, they are deterred from doing so by New York's ban on assisting suicide. App. 25-26.[3] Respondents, and three gravely ill patients who have since died,[4] sued the State's Attorney General in the United States

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District Court. They urged that because New York permits a competent person to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, and because the refusal of such treatment is "essentially the same thing" as physician-assisted suicide, New York's assisted-suicide ban violates the Equal Protection Clause. Quill v. Koppell, 870 F.Supp. 78, 84-85 (SDNY 1994).

The District Court disagreed: "[I]t is hardly unreasonable or irrational for the State to recognize a difference between allowing nature to take its course, even in the most severe situations, and intentionally using an artificial death-producing device." Id., at 84. The court noted New York's "obvious legitimate interests in preserving life, and in protecting vulnerable persons," and concluded that "[u]nder the United States Constitution and the federal system it establishes, the resolution of this issue is left to the normal democratic processes within the State." Id., at 84-85.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. 80 F.3d 716 (1996). The court determined that, despite the assisted-suicide ban's apparent general applicability, "New York law does not treat equally all competent persons who are in the final stages of fatal illness and wish to hasten their deaths," because "those in the final stages of terminal illness who are on life-support systems are allowed to hasten their deaths by directing the removal of such systems; but those who are similarly situated, except for the previous attachment of life-sustaining equipment, are not allowed to hasten death by self-administering prescribed drugs." Id., at 727, 729. In the court's view, "[t]he ending of life by [the withdrawal of life-support systems] is nothing more nor less than assisted suicide. " Id., at 729 (emphasis added). The Court of Appeals then examined whether this supposed unequal treatment was rationally related to any legitimate state

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interests,[5] and concluded that "to the extent that [New York's statutes] prohibit a physician from prescribing medications to be self-administered by a mentally competent, terminally-ill person in the final stages of his terminal illness, they are not rationally related to any legitimate state interest." Id., at 731. We granted certiorari, 518 U.S. 1055 (1996), and now reverse.

The Equal Protection Clause commands that no State shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This provision creates no substantive rights. San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 33 (1973); id., at 59 (Stewart, J., concurring). Instead, it embodies a general rule that States must treat like cases alike but may treat unlike cases accordingly. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 216 (1982) (" '[T]he Constitution does not require things which are different in fact or opinion to be treated in law as though they were the same' ") (quoting Tigner v. Texas, 310 U.S. 141, 147 (1940)). If a legislative classification or distinction "neither burdens a fundamental right nor targets a suspect class, we will uphold [it] so long as it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end." Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 631 (1996).

New York's statutes outlawing assisting suicide affect and address matters of profound significance to all New...

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