State and federal attorneys will square off in federal court in Portland today to argue a case that could nullify the Death With Dignity Act, Oregon's 4-year-old physician-assisted suicide law.

In State of Oregon v. John Ashcroft, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers is challenging an order issued last November by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that overturned the law.

Ashcroft contends the Oregon law violates the 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act because doctors prescribe narcotics and other drugs controlled by federal law. Oregon's law allows doctors to prescribe Ñ but not administer Ñ lethal doses of drugs for terminally ill patients.

Myers argues that Ashcroft has overstepped his authority and that his ruling interferes with the will of Oregon voters, who approved physician-assisted suicide twice Ñ first in 1994 by initiative and again in 1997 by referral from the Legislature.

Today, each side will ask U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones for summary judgment, which means Jones would rule in favor of one side or the other without a trial.

Jones also will hear arguments on Ashcroft's motion to move the case from U.S. District Court in Portland to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Ashcroft contends that the appellate court has exclusive jurisdiction in the case; Myers argues that Jones' court is the proper venue.

Both sides say any decision is likely to be appealed.

The hearing begins at 9 a.m. in the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, 100 S.W. Third Ave., Courtroom 16, 16th floor.

Oregon's law is still in effect because Jones blocked Ashcroft's order soon after it was issued. Jones could rule in the case by the end of April, a spokesman for Myers said.

Last year, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services, 21 Oregonians legally obtained prescriptions for lethal doses of drugs, down from 27 in 2000. A total of 29,541 Oregonians died of all causes in 2000, the department said.

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