At a Glance:

The New Jersey Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s medical aid-in-dying law on June 10, 2022. The challenge had been ongoing since August 2019, when opponents challenged the law alleging it violated their constitutional rights. Compassion & Choices submitted an amicus brief to the appellate court, and argued before the court in May 2022, urging it to affirm the lower court’s ruling. The lower court had dismissed the case in April 2020, stating that Plaintiffs’ lacked standing to challenge the law since they were completely unharmed by the wholly voluntary medical aid-in-dying act.

The Details:

In 2019, New Jersey passed the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, legalizing medical aid in dying for qualifying New Jersey residents. On August 8, 2019, just over a week after the law took effect, Dr. Yosef Glassman filed a Complaint and a Motion to Show Cause in Mercer County Superior Court. Dr. Glassman alleged that the law violated his free exercise rights, despite the fact that physician participation in medical aid in dying is entirely voluntary under the Act. Among his other allegations, Dr. Glassman argued that the New Jersey Constitution recognizes a fundamental right to protect or defend the lives of others and that the state’s medical aid in dying law was in violation of that right. Two other plaintiffs later joined the case – a pharmacist and a terminally ill individual who opposed the law on religious or personal grounds.

On August 14, 2019, the first day terminally ill patients who qualified under the Act would have been able to obtain a prescription, a Mercer County Judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking patients from accessing medical aid in dying. This order was overturned by the New Jersey Appellate Court in a decision issued on August 27, 2019, which held that the lower court “abused its discretion” when it suspended the law. 

On April 1, 2020, following a motion by the state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, a Mercer County Judge dismissed all claims with prejudice. The Superior Court’s ruling stated:

“The Court finds that Plaintiffs lack standing to bring a claim against the Act because its enforcement, and this Court’s determination, does not harm or affect them in any cognizable way …

The language of Article I [of the New Jersey Constitution] does not establish a constitutional or fundamental right to protect or defend the lives of others…it would curtail the rights to privacy of capable terminally ill patients to determine the course of their own medical treatment …

Here, the State has a legitimate interest, perhaps even a compelling interest, in establishing a safe and effective procedure for qualified terminally ill patients to experience a humane and dignified death …

Plaintiffs do not have a reasonable probability of success on the merits of any of their claims …

Accordingly, the Court dismisses the complaint with prejudice.”

(See pages 13, 14, 17, 32, 37 of ruling at here).

After the case was dismissed opponents submitted a Motion for Reconsideration. This motion was subsequently denied by the Court on May 22, 2020. Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal on July 13, 2020.

Compassion & Choices, along with Lynne Lieberman—a terminally-ill New Jersey resident—and Dr. Paul Bryman—a hospice and palliative care physician practicing in New Jersey—submitted an amicus brief on April 2, 2021, urging the Court of Appeal to affirm the lower court’s dismissal of the case. The amicus brief, arguing in favor of New Jersey’s medical aid-in-dying law, stated:

[Plaintiffs] call on this Court to upend well-established precedent by limiting an individual’s right to self-determine their end-of-life medical care and altering the traditional patient-physician relationship in obtaining informed consent. This notion contravenes New Jersey courts’ long-established recognition of an individual’s right to make their own end-of-life choices, even when those choices diverge from the advice of a physician. Appellants may disagree with the end-of-life choices granted by the Act, but those choices are the individual’s alone to make.

Compassion & Choices, Lynne Lieberman, and Dr. Glassman were accepted as amicus by the court on April 26, 2021. Sadly, Lynne Lieberman passed away while the appeal was pending. On May 2, 2022, Compassion & Choices argued in defense of the law before the New Jersey Appellate Court. Despite filing the appeal, Plaintiffs did not show up for oral argument.

On June 10, 2022, the New Jersey Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of opponents’ lawsuit.

"...[S]ince its enactment, ninety-five New Jersey residents have invoked the Act and ended their lives, without, to our knowledge, a single family member or interested party objecting to those unquestionably difficult end of life decisions. Nor has any report surfaced that any person utilized the Act for an improper or illegal purpose…We reject all of [plaintiffs’] arguments and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Lougy in his comprehensive and well-reasoned written opinion. We agree with the judge that plaintiffs lack standing and their constitutional and other challenges are meritless in any event" (Opinion, pages 2-4).

Plaintiffs’ only remaining legal option is to appeal the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which, unlike the Appellate Court, has discretion to decide the appeals it hears and could decline to hear plaintiffs’ case should they file one. Compassion & Choices remains vigilant against any and all efforts by the plaintiffs to overturn the law and any other legal challenges to the law in the future.

 

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