By William Dotinga
RIVERSIDE – A state appeals court in California on Tuesday vacated a trial court ruling that the Golden State’s physician-assisted suicide law is unconstitutional, finding the plaintiffs who challenged the 2016 law lacked standing to sue.
The Fourth Appellate District did not, however, decide the constitutionality of the End of Life Option Act.
In 2017, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia advanced a lawsuit filed by Life Legal Defense Foundation on behalf of a group of California-based doctors and the American Academy of Medical Ethics doing business as Christian Medical and Dental Society.
The groups sought to block the law on grounds it violated the state Constitution because it was passed during a special session of the Legislature meant to deal solely with access to health care.
The Riverside District Attorney and California Attorney General were named in the suit, which was filed the day before the law went into effect in 2016.
This past May, Ottolia agreed the law did not fall within the scope of access to health care services, ruled suicide should not be considered a medical service and granted summary judgment for the groups. He stayed his ruling, issued from the bench, to give the state time to appeal.
The state appealed and the appeals court temporarily reinstated the law. On Tuesday, the 3-judge panel declined to decide whether the Legislature’s actions in the special section violated the California Constitution. Instead, the panel found Ottolia should never have granted summary judgment since it was bound to accept the state’s denial – including the standing argument – as true at that stage in the proceedings.
Furthermore, the panel found the groups did not adequately show they had standing to bring the case in their complaint.
Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez wrote for the panel: “Here, the requisite commonality of interest is missing. The Ahn parties’ terminally ill patients may be divided into two groups. One group, upon receiving their diagnosis, will want to request assisted suicide. The Ahn parties, however, brought this action to prevent them from doing so. They cannot possibly ‘speak for’ this group of patients, even if they claim to be doing so for their benefit. The other group will not want to request assisted suicide. In that event, however, all they have to do is not request it. The act simply does not affect them; thus, it also does not affect the Ahn parties.”
The panel also rejected the argument for personal standing, since the law specifically states they cannot be sanctioned for refusing to offer assisted suicide to their patients. As for public-interest standing, the panel found that only applies to writs of mandate, which the complaint did not include.
Associate Justices Richard Fields and Marsha Slough concurred on standing, though Slough said the panel should have also decided whether the Legislature exceeded its authority by passing the law in special session.
“In my view, the majority’s approach needlessly ties this case up in a procedural Gordian knot,” Slough wrote. “We can cut the knot by realizing the courts – both trial and appellate – have discretion to dismiss a cause of action on any decisive legal ground. In this case, the fact that plaintiffs’ challenge to End of Life Option Act lacks merit as a matter of law provides an independent basis for us to reverse the trial court judgment finding the act violates article IV, section 3 of the California Constitution and direct the court to enter judgment in favor of the state on plaintiffs’ third cause of action.”
The panel left the decision of letting the plaintiffs amend their complaint up to Ottolia.