Court Tosses Assisted Suicide in California

Judge said lawmakers should not have rushed bill through special session

SAN DIEGO, CA - JANUARY 10: Members of the California Right to Life Coalition show their opposition to the Hemlock Society meeting at the Bahia resort January 10, 2003 in San Diego, California. The society advocates "choice and dignity at the end of life," according to its Website. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
May 17, 2018

A judge struck down assisted suicide in California, saying state lawmakers improperly enacted the law allowing patients deemed terminally ill to kill themselves.

On Tuesday Riverside superior court judge Daniel A. Ottolia ruled that state Democrats misused a special legislative session to adopt assisted suicide. In 2015 California lawmakers fast-tracked the bill, known as the End of Life Option Act, and passed it during a special legislative session called to close a $1 billion funding gap in the MediCal program. Ottolia emphasized that his decision to strike down the law reflected the manner in which the law was passed, rather than the merits of assisted suicide.

California's Democratic attorney general Xavier Becerra disputed the ruling. An office spokesman said the state plans to appeal the decision to protect the law.

"We strongly disagree with this ruling and the State is seeking expedited review in the Court of Appeal," Becerra said in a statement.

Opponents of assisted suicide welcomed the decision. Matthew Valliere, executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, called the ruling a "significant setback" for proponents of assisted suicide. He said the suit should give states pause in attempting to rush through such controversial bills.

"The unconstitutionally enacted California End of Life Options Act circumvented the legislative process and represents a significant setback to the assisted suicide legalization movement," Valliere said. "State legislatures are on notice regarding the dubious tactics of [assisted suicide supporters]."

Dr. Brian Callister, the former head of the Nevada Medical Association and an assisted suicide opponent, echoed Valliere's sentiment. He pointed to Nevada's handling of assisted suicide bills, including one that cleared the state senate in 2017 before being defeated in a Democrat-controlled assembly committee. Callister called Tuesday's ruling "an important victory for all people who value the dignity of human life."

"Proponents of physician-assisted suicide have been boasting that there is no opposition in the states that have legalized it," Callister said in an email. "This ruling not only confirms that lots of people are out in force against PAS because it is bad public policy, but it also reminds us of the shady circumstances under which the law has been passed in states like California. Thank goodness this judge was able to see the truth through the smoke and mirrors."

The California law was championed by Compassion & Choices, a pro-assisted suicide group. The organization's attorney said he is confident higher courts will reverse the ruling.

"We respectfully believe the Court misinterpreted the application of the state constitution to this law because medical aid in dying is a recognized health care option," attorney John C. Kappos said in a statement. "Ultimately, we are confident an appeals court will rule the legislature duly passed the End of Life Option Act and reinstate this perfectly valid law."

The courts have given the state five days to file an emergency appeal.