California is hoping that a state appeals court will preserve its assisted-suicide regimen after a judge struck down the law on technical grounds.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked the Fourth District Court of Appeals to save the End of Life Options Act, the 2015 law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal medications to patients diagnosed as terminally ill. Riverside Superior Court judge Daniel A. Ottolia overturned the law on May 15, saying that lawmakers rushed its passage through a special session dedicated to funding the state's MediCal program. Assisted suicide, the judge ruled, fell outside of the scope of that legislative period, though he did not address the substance of the practice itself.
Becerra argues that lawmakers had every right to address physician-assisted suicide in the session, which was intended to close a $1 billion budget gap. The brief filed by the state said Judge Ottolia took too narrow a view of the special session and asked the appeals court to "take a holistic view of patient care."
"The special session was convened to broadly address health care issues, which includes end-of-life health care options. The Act falls squarely within this mandate," the state said in its brief.
Opponents of assisted suicide were critical of the brief and called on the Appeals Court to preserve the lower court order. Matthew Valliere, executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, said lawmakers embraced shadowy tactics to avoid prolonged, public debate, and denied Californians the opportunity to properly weigh in on the decision. He called Becerra's appeal "troubling," given his role as a constitutional check on legislative abuses and violations of the state constitution.
"In order to enact a dangerous public policy that put the lives of countless vulnerable Californians at risk, advocates felt they needed to circumvent the legislative process," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "For the sake of people with terminal illness, disabilities, advanced age, and economic challenges, who are the first to suffer from these laws, we hope that this effort to appeal the ruling of Judge Ottolia fails."
Advocates for assisted suicide praised Becerra for appealing the ruling. Compassion & Choices, one of the nation's largest proponents of what it calls "medical aid in dying," filed an amicus brief arguing that the law was properly enacted and reflected the will of state residents. The group's attorney, John C. Kappos, said in a statement that the lower court order "seeks to take away the peaceful option of medical aid in dying for terminally ill Californians."
"Ultimately, the End of Life Option Act is constitutional because Gov. Brown would not have signed the law if it fell outside the scope of his proclamation for the special session," Kappos said.
Becerra's office petitioned the appeals court on Monday evening as the five-day window to file an emergency appeal neared its conclusion. Patients will continue to have access to assisted suicide as the case makes its way through the courts, according to Compassion & Choices' Kevin Díaz. If higher courts reject the appeal, California lawmakers could be forced to pass a new bill during one of its regular sessions or convene a special session that expressly permits debating assisted suicide.