California Appeals Court Overturns Ruling That Imperiled End of Life Option Act

Justices find opponents lack legal standing to file their lawsuit opposing medical aid in dying in the Ahn v. Hestrin case.
December 6, 2018

A California appeals court on November 27 directed a superior trial court to nullify its judgment from last May that suspended the state’s medical aid-in-dying law before the appeals court granted a stay in June reinstating it. A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeals in California found the plaintiffs had no right to sue to block the End of Life Option Act. The court said they failed to show harmed because participation is optional.

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.”

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 2½ 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.”

“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 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, 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.  

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