California assisted death law overturned in court

By ALEXEI KOSEFF | May 15, 2018

Battling colon cancer, Elizabeth Wallner said she considers California’s new aid-in-dying law, which takes effect June 9, 2016, a tool to help her and others live their challenged lives on more of their own terms. Hector Amezcua The Sacramento Bee

A judge in Riverside County on Tuesday overturned California’s controversial assisted death law nearly two years after it took effect, ruling that the Legislature improperly passed the measure during a special session on health care funding.

The court is holding its judgment for five days, according to representatives for supporters and opponents of the law, to give the state time to file an emergency appeal.

“We’re very satisfied with the court’s decision today,” said Stephen G. Larson, lead counsel for a group of doctors who sued in 2016 to stop the law. “The act itself was rushed through the special session of the Legislature and it does not have any of the safeguards one would expect to see in a law like this.”

The state plans to seek expedited review in an appellate court, according to Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who said in a statement that he strongly disagreed with the ruling.

Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, the Stockton Democrat who carried the bill, said Californians who are in the process of obtaining life-ending drugs through the law have had “the carpet ripped out from under their feet.”

“It’s a reminder for all of us that there are those out there who would like to take our rights away,” she said. “When we move forward, there are those who would like to drag us back.”

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, the assisted death law allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with six months or less to live. Hundreds of Californians have already taken advantage of that option, including 111 individuals who died from taking the drugs in the first seven months of their availability.

Proponents say it provides dignity to terminally ill patients by affording them more control over the end of their lives.

But the legislative push originally fell short amid opposition from oncologists, Catholic hospitals, clergy and disability rights groups, who argued that the policy was immoral and could have a detrimental impact on health care for the state’s most vulnerable patients.

After failing in regular session, lawmakers successfully revived the assisted death proposal in a special session called that summer by Brown to find a source of funding for public health programs.

Larson said his clients are most concerned about a lack of protections in the law, including an inadequate definition of terminal illness and a provision exempting doctors who prescribe the lethal drugs from liability. But he said they also challenged the manner in which the law was passed, an argument the judge sided with on Tuesday.

“That special session was called to address funding shortages caused by Medi-Cal,” Larson said. “It was not called to address the issue of assisted suicide.”

Supporters noted that the ruling was not about the legality of assisted death and that public polls have indicated the law has widespread approval in California. Advocacy group Death With Dignity National Center sent out a fundraising email Tuesday afternoon decrying “shadowy, religious-right groups attempting to derail the law any way they can” for “disrespecting the will of the people.”

Eggman said Brown would have known “what he intended with the breadth of the special session,” which also included objectives to “improve the efficiency and the efficacy of the health care system,” and he signed the law.

Compassion & Choices, the organization that led the effort to legalize assisted death in California, also objected to the judge’s interpretation.

“He’s not acknowledging it’s a health care issue, even though we believe it is,” spokesman Sean Crowley said. “It deals with medication.”

A portrait of Brittany Maynard, a Californian who moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s right-to-die law for the terminally ill, sat on the dais of the California Senate Health Committee as lawmakers took testimony on similar legislation last year. Rich Pedroncelli AP file

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