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Justices Turn to Grammar To Debate Drug-Prosecution Convictions

Medical doctors sentenced to decades in prison for writing hundreds of thousands of scripts for painkillers asked the Supreme Court to overturn their convictions. To decide their fates, the justices found themselves in oral arguments returning Tuesday to elementary school grammar lessons, reports Courthouse News Service. “Do the adverbs knowingly or intentionally modify the introductory clause except as authorized by this subchapter,” asked Justice Samuel Alito, focused on the Controlled Substance Act at issue in the case. Alito said his English teacher would have said no. Justice Stephen Breyer disagreed. “I had a different English teacher, Miss Chichester, who told us an adverb could modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb,” Breyer said.

The case stems from the convictions of three doctors, two of whom ranked as the top prescribers of a certain kind of fentanyl during a period from 2011 and 2015 when they wrote almost 300,000 prescriptions for the schedule II drug and other controlled substances like oxycodone and morphine out of their clinic in Mobile, Al. Some of these prescriptions were written without seeing patients, and most of them were for common ailments, not severe pain. A federal undercover agent visited the office of Xiulu Ruan and John Patrick Couch, and was able to obtain opioids after less than one minute. The Controlled Substances Act says a doctor can distribute a controlled substance if “acting in the usual course of his professional practice.” The disagreement between the doctors and the government is what acting in good faith means and how it should affect prosecutions.


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