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Calif. Appeals Court Suspends Lower Court Ruling, Reinstates End of Life Option Act

Ruling Allows Terminally Ill Californians to Use Law to Die Peacefully

(Riverside, Calif.) A California appeals court today granted emergency motions by the two terminally ill adults and a physician represented by Compassion & Choices for an “automatic stay” to immediately suspend a lower court’s judgment invalidating the End of Life Option Act. The appeals court also granted a motion by Attorney General Xavier Becerra for a “discretionary stay” of the lower court ruling. The rulings reinstate the law, effective immediately.

Similar to laws in Washington, D.C. and six states, the California law gives mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live the option to request prescription medication they can decide to take to end unbearable suffering and die peacefully in their sleep.

On May 15, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Ottolia granted the plaintiffs’ motion in the lawsuit to invalidate the End of Life Option Act by Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians. On May 24, he issued a judgment that was required to actually invalidate the law. Judge Ottolia ruled the legislature violated the state constitution by passing the law during a special session Gov. Brown proclaimed was limited to health care, despite the fact that Gov. Brown signed the bill into law.

The 4th District Circuit of Appeal granted Compassion & Choices motion for an “immediate stay” order that reinstates the law pending further review (see ruling at: bit.ly/CaLawStay). The appeals court order concluded:

“The request for an immediate stay is GRANTED. The trial court’s order of May 21, 2018, and judgment of May 24, 2018, are hereby STAYED pending determination of the [appeal].”

Kevin Diaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices

“This stay is a huge win for many terminally ill Californians with six months or less to live because it could take years for the courts to resolve this case,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, whose sister organization, Compassion & Choices Action Network, led the campaign to pass the End of Life Option Act. “Thankfully, this ruling settles the issue for the time being, but we know we have a long fight ahead before we prevail.”

“The appeals court made the legally correct decision by reinstating the status quo of the law being in effect, before the lower court ruling, until the courts resolve this case,” said John Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm working with Compassion & Choices, which has filed several motions in the case. “Ultimately, we are confident the courts will rule the law is constitutional and valid.”

“This ruling is a key first step towards righting the wrong,” said Jon B. Eisenberg, Esq, of Healdsburg (Sonoma County), an expert in appellate law working with Compassion & Choices legal team. “It is great news for terminally ill Californians who have been in legal limbo for the last few weeks, a limbo that could have lasted much longer without the stay because this case could last months or years, and they would have not access to the law in the meantime.”

Last June, Compassion & Choices released a report estimating that 504 Californians have received prescriptions for medical aid in dying since it took effect on June 9, 2016. Last July, the California Department of Public Health released a report showing 191 terminally ill Californians received prescriptions from 173 doctors for aid-in-dying medication during the nearly seven month period from June 9, 2016 until Dec. 31, 2016; 111 of those individuals (58%) decided to self-ingest the medication.

Polling shows 76 percent of Californians across the political and demographic spectrum support medical aid in dying. This majority support includes 82 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of independents, 67 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of whites, Latinos and Asian Americans, and 52 percent of African Americans.

California is one of seven states — including Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Hawai‘i — as well as the District of Columbia, that have authorized medical aid in dying. Collectively, these eight jurisdictions represent nearly one out of five Americans (19%) and have 40 years of combined experience safely using this end-of-life care option.

Case Background:

On June 8, 2016 — the day before the End of Life Option Act took effect on June 9, 2016 — Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians filed a lawsuit against the California attorney general and Riverside County district attorney in Riverside Superior Court seeking to invalidate the law. The lawsuit, Ahn vs. HestrinCase RIC1607135, claims the law violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. and California constitutions because it fails “to make rational distinctions” between terminally ill adults “and the vast majority of Californians not covered by the Act.” The suit also claims the legislature did not have the state constitutional authority to pass the health care law during a special session limited to health care.

On July 19, 2016, Compassion & Choices filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing a motion by the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction to suspend the End of Life Options Act.

On Aug. 26, 2016, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia rejected the preliminary injunction motion to suspend the law, but he allowed the suit to move forward.

On June 16, 2017, Judge Ottolia ruled that the lawsuit would proceed to trial to determine the merits of the case, but the End of Life Option Act remained in effect.

On May 15, 2018, Judge Ottolia granted the plaintiffs’ motion in the case to invalidate the law because he claimed the legislature violated the state constitution by passing it during a special session limited to health care issues. He gave Attorney General Xavier Becerra five days to appeal the ruling, and the attorney general did so on May 21.

On May 23, 2018, the 4th District Circuit of Appeal denied a separate motion by the attorney general for a stay to suspend the ruling, but ordered the plaintiffs to show cause why the appeals court should not overturn the ruling in 25 days. Despite the appeals court’s denial of the stay, Judge Ottolia’s original ruling didn’t invalidate the law because he had not yet issued a judgment giving effect to his decision reflected in his order on May 24.

On May 30, 2018, Judge Ottolia rejected a motion filed by Compassion & Choices on behalf of a physician and two terminally ill adults urging the judge to “vacate” (i.e., cancel) his judgment on May 24 invalidating the End of Life Option Act. However, he scheduled a hearing on June 29 to consider a separate motion by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to vacate the judgment.