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Gonzales v. Oregon - 546 U.S. 243, 126 S. Ct. 904 (2006)

Rule:

An administrative rule may receive substantial deference if it interprets the issuing agency's own ambiguous regulation. An interpretation of an ambiguous statute may also receive substantial deference. Deference in accordance with Chevron, however, is warranted only when it appears that Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and that the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority. Otherwise, the interpretation is entitled to respect only to the extent it has the power to persuade.

Facts:

Respondent State of Oregon and others challenged in federal court an interpretive rule issued by petitioner U.S. Attorney General that would have disrupted physician assisted suicide under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act (ODWDA), Or. Rev. Stat. § 127.800 et seq. (2003). A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held the interpretive rule to be invalid. The Government's petition for certiorari was granted. The interpretive rule determined that using controlled substances to assist suicide was not a legitimate medical practice and that dispensing or prescribing drugs for that purpose was unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C.S. § 801 et seq. The validity of the interpretive rule was the issue before the Court. 21 C.F.R. § 1306.04 (2005) used the terms "legitimate medical purpose" and "the course of professional practice," but this just repeated these statutory phrases while giving little or no instruction on the question of who was to decide whether a particular activity was in "the course of professional practice" or done for a "legitimate medical purpose."

Issue:

Was the attorney general authorized to ban the use of controlled substances for physician assisted suicide?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that since the regulation gave no indication how to decide that issue, the Attorney General's effort to decide it could not be considered an interpretation of the regulation. The issue was not the meaning of the regulation, but the meaning of the statute. The Attorney General's rulemaking power to fulfill his duties under the CSA did not include the power to declare illegitimate a medical standard for care and treatment of patients that was specifically authorized under state law.

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