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Judge Tosses California Law Allowing Life-Ending Drugs

Debbie Ziegler, mother of Brittany Maynard, speaks to the media after the passage of legislation, which would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives, at the state Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 11, 2015.
Associated Press
Debbie Ziegler, mother of Brittany Maynard, speaks to the media after the passage of legislation, which would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives, at the state Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 11, 2015.
Judge Tosses California Law Allowing Life-Ending Drugs
Judge Tosses California Law Allowing Life-Ending Drugs GUEST: Thaddeus Pope, director, Health Law Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Our top story on midday addition, opponents of California's end-of-life law are celebrating a Riverside judge's ruling, the Superior Court judge has overturned the law which allows terminally ill Californians to choose to end their lives with a doctor's help. The judge gave the state attorney general five days to file an appeal, before the law is invalidated. A lawsuit challenging the end-of-life law was brought by life legal defense. A right to life group who made a number of arguments against the substance of the law, but apparently the one that stuck was a procedural argument about how the state legislature went about approving the law. Joining me is Thaddeus Pope, he is director of the Mitchell Hamline school of laws health Law Institute and he has been following the California lawsuit. Thaddeus Pope, welcome. >> Thank you. >> Can you explain what we know about the stretches ruling and why does he say to aid in dying law is unconstitutional? >> The point, they argue that because the act was enacted in a special session, which was called by the governor, it is unconstitutional because when the governor calls a special session, the only legislation that can be enacted during that special session, is legislation that fits within the scope of the governors acclamation. The primary purpose of the proclamation and the special session was Medi-Cal funding and healthcare finance. So life legal defense fund argued and the judge agreed that the end-of-life options act, did not fit within the subject matter of the governors proclamation that called the special session. The governor also clearly wrote that it was also called to improve the efficacy of the healthcare system and to improve the health of California. So water language covering anything related to health care was also specifically included in the proclamation. >> Is it possible that Governor Brown could be asked to clarify, what kind of leeway he gave to legislators during this special session since it was his proclamation? >> Well, it sounds like the trial court has already issued its order on the plaintiff's motion. And normally, evidence is only gathered at the trial court level. Although, yes, the parties may try to look to other statements of the governor, as to what it is that he intended the scope of his proclamation to be. At the end of the day, it is not clear that it is even going to matter, because it is clear that the scope of the proclamation covers anything related to healthcare, so the bait here is not whether this proclamation is a narrowly limited to healthcare finance, or more broadly limited to healthcare. Instead, the question is whether the end-of-life options act even relates to health. Or healthcare. That is probably as broad as the proclamation could possibly be construed. >> Now, the California's end-of-life option law has been in effect for almost two years, what would be the ramifications in California if this ruling overturned that law and is affirmed. In other words, if this law goes away? >> Right, it would be pretty dramatic, so we know from the first state Department of Public health reports, just in the sixth month's -- six months of 2016, it was in effect around 200 Californians used it, that was of course the first six months it was in effect. So normally, more people use it after it has more of a track record and more hospitals implement procedures, so probably in today's numbers 12 2000 Californians would be deprived of this option at the end of their life each year. Until any statute were enacted by the legislature all over from scratch. >> Now, a number of other states have aid in dying laws, and I am wondering if they have been successfully challenged and reversed anywhere else? >> No other states end-of-life option act, and there are seven other states in which this is a legal option at the end of life, has had their law successfully challenged. At least ultimately. So the main state to look to is Oregon, because they were first. So, all the challenges that you could think of were brought against the organ act and ultimately, at least they were all unsuccessful, which by the way, most of the constitutional challenges in this lawsuit, were already raised against the organ statute years ago and were unsuccessful. Which is why the only potentially successful argument, against the California statute was this special session provision of the state constitution. All the other ones have already been tried and failed, so there is no reason to think that they would've been successful here. >> I have been speaking with Thaddeus Pope, director of the Mitchell Hamline school of lawless health Law Institute and thank you so much. >> Thank you.

A California judge on Tuesday threw out a 2016 state law allowing the terminally ill to end their lives, ruling it was unconstitutionally approved by the Legislature.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia did not rule on the legality of allowing physician-assisted death, but he issued an oral ruling saying lawmakers acted illegally in passing the law during a special session devoted to other topics, said lawyers for supporters and opponents.

Ottolia kept the law in place and gave the state attorney general five days to appeal. Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

The Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians challenged the law, which allows terminally ill adults to obtain a prescription for life-ending drugs if a doctor has determined they have six months or less to live. The plaintiffs say the law lacks safeguards to protect against abuse.

RELATED: California’s Aid-In-Dying Law Prompting Doctor-Patient Conversations

California is one of five states in which terminally ill people can end their lives. Oregon was the first to provide the option in 1997.

Since California approved the legislation, hundreds of terminally ill people have requested life-ending drugs, according to state figures and local advocates who track the prescriptions.

California health officials reported that 111 terminally ill people took drugs to end their lives in the first six months after the law went into effect June 9, 2016, and made the option legal in the nation's most populous state. The next report on how many people took the drugs is due in July.

"Our supporters, they've frankly expressed shock at this outcome. They're disappointed that this end of life option could be taken away," said John Kappos, an attorney representing Compassion & Choices, a national organization that advocated for the Legislature to pass the law.

Advocates argued if the law is suspended, people who qualified for the prescriptions will lose the option and be forced to suffer prolonged, painful deaths.

"The court went down a technical path saying we're not going to reach the merits...but the way it was enacted through a special session the court said was improper and therefore declared it unconstitutional," Kappos said.

The Democratic lawmakers who carried the original bill, Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman of Stockton and Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel, could not immediately say if they would try to pass the bill again.

Alexandra Snyder, an attorney and executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, said the judge ruled that lawmakers effectively "hijacked" a special legislative session that was called to address access to medical care and used it to pass their bill.

"It was a violation of the Constitution to basically slip in this suicide bill," she said, saying it set a dangerous precedent that undermines the legislative process. "Access to health care has no relationship to assisted suicide."

The state's attorney general's office, in responding to the suit, noted that medical professionals have the right to refuse to prescribe and dispense the drugs. Under the law, the terminally ill person must be able to self-administer the drugs.

The attorney general's office said in court documents that the act "provides comfort, support and an option to accommodate the very unique needs of terminally ill patients." It said the plaintiffs are wrong to second guess the Legislature's policy decisions.

In lobbying against the law before state legislators, opponents argued that hastening death was morally wrong, that it puts terminally ill patients at risk for coerced death by loved ones and could become a way out for people who are uninsured or fearful of high medical bills.