Appeals Court Rejects Bid to Save Assisted Suicide

Lethal pills still available as court asks opponents to justify full overturn, according to supporters

A doctor holds up a drug testing kit which is used as part of assisted suicides
A doctor holds up a drug testing kit which is used as part of assisted suicides / Getty Images
May 24, 2018

A California appeals court denied the state's bid to preserve its assisted-suicide law.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Attorney General Xavier Becerra's emergency appeal to lift a lower court judge's ruling that struck down the End of Life Options Act. The bill passed the California legislature in 2015, but Riverside District Court judge Daniel A. Ottolia ruled that lawmakers improperly rushed it through a special session dedicated to health care funding to do so.

The decision leaves the law in legal limbo, as it only applied to the emergency appeal and was a split decision. The court has asked opponents of the law to file briefs to defend a further stay on the law. Judge Ottolia limited his ruling to technical questions of the session, rather than the merits of assisted suicide as a practice and the language of the legislation.

The attorney general's office maintains the law is constitutional and the method of passing it fell within the scope of the special session, which Democratic governor Jerry Brown called for to address a $1 billion budget gap in the MediCal program. Becerra argued that assisted suicide addressed a valid health care issue that affected state policy.

"The court of appeal issued an order requiring briefing on the validity of the End of Life Option Act. We are pleased the court of appeal recognized that this case merits special—and expedited—consideration," an office spokesman said in an email. "While the court denied the immediate stay, we remain firm in our position that the End of Life Option Act was validly enacted."

Supporters of assisted suicide say the ambiguous ruling leaves the state's assisted-suicide regimen in place. Kevin Díaz, the national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, said the ruling should not affect the ability of residents to seek out lethal medication. His organization filed an amicus brief to defend the law, and he expects the two-year-old lawsuit to continue on.

"Physicians still are protected under the law to write prescriptions for their terminally ill patients who want the end-of-life care option for medical aid in dying to peacefully end intolerable suffering," he said in a statement. "This preliminary ruling is just one step in what promises to be a long legal battle, so people should not be overly concerned about it."

Opponents of the law dispute the assertion that the law remains in effect. The attorney general's office did not respond to requests seeking to confirm the current status of assisted suicide.

The plaintiffs seeking to overturn the law will have 15 days to file briefs to the court, while interested parties have a deadline of 25 days to respond to the order.