By Bob Egelko
A state appeals court rejected a challenge Tuesday to California's right-to-die law for terminally ill patients, overturning a judge's ruling in May that had briefly blocked enforcement of the law.
The statute, in effect since June 2016, allows a dying adult patient to take lethal drugs that a doctor has prescribed. Before that, two doctors must have determined that the patient would die within six months and was mentally competent to choose death.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia halted enforcement of the law in May, ruling that state lawmakers had illegally considered and passed the legislation during a special session devoted to health care. Allowing patients to take their own lives has no apparent connection to improving Californians' health care, Ottolia said.
Bills passed in a special session require the same majority vote as in normal legislative sessions, but are generally reviewed more quickly and take effect sooner than in regular sessions. However, the right-to-die bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in October 2015, was drafted to take effect eight months later.
The suit was filed by five doctors and the Christian Medical and Dental Society, all represented by the Life Legal Defense Foundation. They had previously mounted a more substantial challenge to the law, contending it lacked safeguards and could be exploited by greedy relatives, but Ottolia had refused to overturn it on that basis, noting the law's requirements for medical evaluation.
Three weeks after the May ruling, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Riverside, in a brief unexplained order, put the law back into effect while it considered the state's appeal. On Tuesday, the court overturned Ottolia's ruling on the grounds that the doctors who challenged the law had nothing to gain or lose from its enforcement, and thus lacked legal standing to sue.
While the doctors claimed they were representing the interests of their patients, they were only representing those who did not want to end their lives, and the right-to-die law "simply does not affect them," Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez said in the majority opinion. He said the doctors have not alleged that they ever diagnosed terminal illnesses, but even if they did, the law would not require them to prescribe life-ending drugs.
Ramirez said others may have standing to challenge the law -- for example, a district attorney who believes it is unconstitutional and wants to prosecute doctors who participate. He did not address the question of whether the bill had been properly taken up in a special session, leaving open the possibility of a new or revised suit. In a separate opinion, however, Justice Marsha Slough said the law had been legally enacted and the suit should be dismissed.
The Legislature could reasonably conclude that "aid-in-dying services can constitute a form of health care," Slough said. Before the law passed, she said, doctors and patients would have considered other ways to relieve suffering, such as hospice care and pain medication, which are considered health care services even though they do not attempt to cure the patient.
The new law "adds another option, one that is especially valuable to patients who, because of their disease, face extended periods of excruciating pain prior to death," Slough said.
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