Nov 4, 2021
Compassion & Choices praised a California appeals court for dismissing a five-year-old lawsuit that resulted in a lower court temporarily suspending California’s End of Life Option Act in May 2018.
The suspension resulted in a significant number of terminally ill Californians dying with needless suffering because they were unable to access the law. In fact, there was about a 22 percent drop in the number of terminally ill Californians who received prescriptions for medical aid in dying in 2018 (452) compared to 2017 (577). Compassion & Choices’ appeal of the lower court ruling in June resulted in an automatic and immediate reinstatement of the law.
Similar to medical aid-in-dying laws in Washington, D.C., and eight other states, California’s End of Life Option Act, allows mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live to obtain a prescription medication they can decide to take to peacefully end unbearable suffering.
The plaintiffs, represented by Life Legal Defense Fund, filed the lawsuit, Ahn v. Hestrin, against state officials, including the attorney general, on June 8, 2016, one day before the law took effect on June 9, 2016. The plaintiffs claimed that the law was unconstitutional because the California legislature passed it during a special session on healthcare.
Late last week, the plaintiffs, defendants, and terminally ill Californian Matthew Fairchild represented by Compassion & Choices, who intervened in the lawsuit, stipulated to the court that since the legislature recently reauthorized the law during a regular session, it rendered the lawsuit moot.
The appeals court ruled: “The court has considered the stipulation of the parties…to dismiss the appeal. The stipulation is APPROVED...and the appeal is DISMISSED.”
“The Compassion & Choices Action Network sponsored the original End of Life Option Act in 2015 and the 2021 legislation, SB 380, to reauthorize and improve access to the law, so we are relieved this lawsuit finally is resolved in their favor,” said Kim Callinan, President and CEO of Compassion & Choices and the Compassion & Choices Action Network. “But we could not have achieved this victory without the help of dedicated physicians like Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest and brave terminally ill Californians like Andrea Saltzman, Joan Nelson, and Matt Fairchild.”
“I am truly grateful to the appeals court for this ruling that ensures terminally ill Californians like me no longer will have to worry about if they will have this peaceful dying option when their time comes,” said Matt Fairchild, a Catholic, 51-year-old, retired Army staff sergeant from Burbank who takes 26 medication to manage his symptoms from terminal melanoma that has spread to his bones, lungs, and brain. “Thank God that the California attorney general’s office and Compassion & Choices relentlessly fought to protect this compassionate law.”
“We always believed the California legislature lawfully passed the End of Life Option Act during a special session on healthcare because medical aid in dying is a palliative care option to relieve intolerable suffering,” said Kevin Díaz, chief legal advocacy officer of Compassion & Choices, and its sister organization, Compassion & Choices Action Network. “But thanks to the Legislature reauthorizing the law this year during a regular session, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Three out of four Californians (75%), including often underserved communities (Asian Californians: 76%; Black Californians: 70%; Latino Californians: 68%) support the End of Life Option Act, according to a 2019 statewide survey commissioned by the California Health Care Foundation.
“We hope that this ruling will deter medical aid-in-dying opponents from challenging the public officials who, after careful consideration, passed a compassionate law with such strong public support,” said John Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm working with Compassion & Choices who presented oral argument to the appeals court. “It’s a terrible waste to force taxpayer-funded courts to consider baseless lawsuits like this one that only seek to prolong the suffering and agony of terminally ill Californians.”
“I believe that the California Supreme Court would have upheld the constitutionality of the End of Life Option Act if the case had reached that far,” said Jon B. Eisenberg, of Healdsburg (Sonoma County), an expert in appellate law working with the Compassion & Choices legal team. “Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary, so terminally ill Californians don’t have to worry about this case dragging on even longer than the five years that it did.”
Prior to this most recent ruling, the California appeals court directed a superior trial court to nullify its judgment in late May of 2018 that suspended the state’s medical aid-in-dying law before the appeals court reinstated the law in June 2018. The court ruled in a majority 2-1 decision that the physician plaintiffs didn’t establish legal standing when they filed their lawsuit to overturn the End of Life Option Act because the law doesn’t affect them or their patients since they both are free to opt-out of participating in the law:
The judges concluded: “...we conclude that the Ahn parties lack standing for any of the theories they have asserted in this appeal. We have no way of knowing whether, on remand [sending the case back to superior court], they will be able to amend their complaint so as to allege standing, whether the trial court will grant them leave to do so, or whether they will be able to prove up their amended allegations.” ( see first full paragraph on page 27).
California is one of 10 states — including Colorado, Hawai‘i, Maine, Montana (via a state Supreme Court ruling), New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — as well as Washington, D.C., that have authorized medical aid in dying. Collectively, these 11 jurisdictions represent more than one out of five Americans (22%) and collectively have decades of experience with medical aid in dying since Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law took effect in 1997.