The two sides in the legal battle over the validity of California’s physician-assisted suicide law are working on briefs that will be presented to an appellate court later this summer, while those seeking to avail themselves of state-sanctioned suicide continue to have the ability to go through with the process.
A motions hearing on Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia’s decision last month to overturn the End of Life Option Act had been scheduled Friday at the Riverside Historic Courthouse, but the judge vacated the hearing in light of a June 15 order issued by the Fourth District Court of Appeal suspending his judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
The appellate court’s stay will remain in force for the duration of the appeals process, leaving the End of Life Option Act in place.
Lawyers for opponents of the law, namely Drs. Sang-Hoon Ahn, George Delgado, Vince Fortanasce and others associated with the Napa-based Life Legal Defense Foundation, are scheduled — along with attorneys from the California Department of Justice, which is defending the law — to submit written briefs to the appeals court by July 19.
The court has not set a date for oral arguments at its Division 2 chamber in Riverside, but a hearing may be added to the docket before the end of September.
Denver-based Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, advocated for the End of Life Option Act and provided assistance drafting it. The group has called the appellate court’s decision to stay Ottolia’s judgment “a huge win for terminally ill Californians.”
Life Legal Defense Foundation Executive Director Alexandra Snyder said her organization remains dedicated to seeing the law permanently invalidated to protect “citizens from being `helped’ to commit suicide.”
The foundation has underscored in literature what it describes as troubling aspects of the law, including that a “family member can initiate the request for assisted suicide … not the person seeking suicide”; “an interested `witness’ — someone who will benefit financially from the person’s death — can sign off on the suicide drug request”; and “any doctor or osteopath can write the prescription” without a history of interaction with the patient.
The lawsuit challenging the validity of the End of Life Option Act was filed within a few weeks of the Legislature’s approval of the law in June 2016.
Ottolia ruled that the act failed to pass constitutional muster because it was passed during a special session of the Legislature convened by the governor specifically to address Medicare funding shortfalls. The judge said that the act did not “fall within the scope of access to healthcare services” and was “not a matter of healthcare funding,” thus it was at odds with legal procedure and could not stand.
Former U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson of Riverside, who went into private practice in 2009, was one of the legal heavies hired to represent the opposition.
According to Compassion & Choices, 504 Californians have utilized the act since it took effect. Supporters say it empowers terminally ill patients, who still have the capacity to govern their lives, to elect for themselves how they wish to die.
So-called “aid-in-dying” laws are on the books in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Montana, Washington, D.C., and Washington state, according to Compassion & Choices, which wants the option available in every state.
Under the California law, a patient must be at least 18 years old and a resident, suffering from an incurable and irreversible illness with a prognosis of six months or less to live, to qualify to proceed with physician-assisted suicide.
A California board-certified doctor is required to assess the patient’s mental status and condition before the California Department of Public Health will approve use of the option.
The agency requires the submission of forms authenticating the patient’s decision. If approval is granted, the patient is permitted to self-administer lethal drugs.
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