Judge Rejects Bid to Vacate Assisted Suicide Ruling

California law allowing for physician assisted suicide remains in peril

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

A California judge rejected a bid from assisted suicide supporters to reverse a ruling that threatens to invalidate the 2015 law.

On Wednesday Riverside Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia rejected a motion to vacate his decision declaring the End of Life Options Act unconstitutional. Assisted suicide supporters Compassion & Choices filed the motion on behalf of two terminally ill patients, as well as a doctor who prescribes lethal medication, in an effort to protect the law. Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest, a clinical associate professor of family medicine at University of California at San Francisco Natividad, asked the court to revisit its initial judgment to avoid "confusion" for patients and doctors.

"The recent decision that the End of Life Option Act was enacted unconstitutionally has left me, my colleagues, and patients reeling as we try to navigate end-of-life care," Dr. Forest said in a petition. "The resulting confusion has compounded my patients' suffering."

Judge Ottolia ruled on May 15 that California Democrats improperly fast tracked the bill to legalize assisted suicide. They adopted the bill during a special session convened by Gov. Jerry Brown to address a $1 billion shortfall in the MediCal program. Ottolia said passing the controversial legislation fell outside the scope of that session, emphasizing that the ruling applied solely on the manner in which the law was passed, rather than the substance of assisted suicide.

Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office did not return request for comment, filed an emergency appeal to preserve the law. He argued that the special session was intended to address healthcare issues in general and assisted suicide "falls squarely within this mandate." The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the emergency appeal, but asked lawyers opposed to the law to show cause for why the law should be overturned beyond the technical details of its passage.

Compassion & Choices filed the motion to vacate hoping to cut off the lawsuit before a final ruling his issued in the case. The group's attorney, John Kappos, said in a statement that the Court ruling "was based on a narrow and limited reading of the proclamation, without any consideration of the full scope of the subject matter the governor’s proclamation opened up to the legislature." C&C spokesman Kevin Díaz said he was "deeply disappointed" by the judge's refusal to reconsider the ruling that blocked the case, though it maintains that the law remains in effect.

"The one month delay until the hearing is unacceptable because in the meantime the law is not in effect and terminally ill Californians now are left without the option of medical aid in dying to peacefully end unbearable suffering," he said in a statement.

Opponents of assisted suicide said the court took the right step in allowing the merits of the case to play out before vacating the ruling. Matthew Valliere, executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, said Ottolia was correct in interpreting that lawmakers acted inappropriately especially after they failed to pass assisted suicide during regular session.

"We applaud Judge Ottolia for striking an illegally passed bill and rejecting proponents’ motion to vacate the ruling. California is not known for equal access to care, which, under assisted suicide law, puts a great many at risk of deadly harm," Valliere said in an email. "Given the opaque nature of assisted suicide public policy—lack of data collection, no requirement for third party reporting, no ombudsman, etc.—no one could possibly assure us that the law is safe."

Supporters of the law have other avenues to protect assisted suicide in the state. The Attorney General's office has filed a similar motion to vacate the decision. Ottalia has scheduled a hearing for that motion on June 29.