Calif. Appeals Court Directs Lower Court to Nullify Ruling that Temporarily Suspended End of Life Option Act in May

Justices Rule Plaintiffs Lack “Standing” to Challenge Law Since It Does Not Affect Them
November 28, 2018

A California appeals court late Tuesday directed a superior trial court to nullify its judgment in late May that suspended the state’s medical aid-in-dying law before the appeals court granted a stay in June reinstating the law. The Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate District (“appeals court”), ruled the physician plaintiffs didn’t establish legal standing when they filed their lawsuit in 2016 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.  

In a majority 2-1 ruling, the appeals court in Ahn v. Hestrin, stated:

“…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).

The appeals court ruling followed a hearing on Oct. 8, featuring oral arguments by the plaintiffs, the state attorney general’s office, and attorneys working with Compassion & Choices representing two terminally ill adults and a physician.

“The good news is that the law remains intact for the foreseeable future, so doctors can write prescriptions for terminally ill Californians who need the option of medical aid in dying,” said Kevin Díaz, chief legal advocacy officer for Compassion & Choices, whose sister organization, Compassion & Choices Action Network, led the campaign to pass the End of Life Option Act. “But we know from experience over the last 2-½ years in this case that our opponents will pursue every possible legal tactic to overturn the law. We will fight them at every turn to protect it.” 

Kevin Díaz, chief legal advocacy officer for Compassion & Choices, and outside counsel John Kappos speaking to journalists after court hearing in 2017.

“This appeals court ruling is an important legal precedent that strengthens our chances of successfully defending the law,” said John Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm working with Compassion & Choices, and who presented oral argument to the appeals court. “But the harsh reality is this case is likely to last several more years because the plaintiffs are hell-bent on depriving Californians of their constitutional right to end-of-life care options that ensure terminally ill Californians have access to a peaceful death, free of unbearable suffering.”

“The plaintiffs must show legal standing or they will not be able to continue the case,” said Jon B. Eisenberg, of Healdsburg (Sonoma County), an expert in appellate law working with the Compassion & Choices legal team.  “But the appeals court provided the plaintiffs with a roadmap for doing so, which they will likely attempt to do once the case is sent back to the superior court.  And it is also possible that the California Supreme Court will take the case instead and rule directly on the constitutionality of the End of Life Option Act.”

On July 18, the appeals court granted an emergency motion 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 on May 30, 2018, invalidating the End of Life Option Act. The appeals court ruling reinstating the law was retroactive to June 1, 2018, when Compassion & Choices filed a notice of appeal.  

The appeals court also granted on June 16, 2018, motions for a “discretionary stay” of the lower court ruling filed by Compassion & Choices’ and Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Those rulings reassured the public that the law was back in effect before the ruling of July 18.

In 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.

Compassion & Choices
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