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California files to block ruling that ends right-to-die law

California’s attorney general on Monday sought an emergency ruling to allow the state’s right-to-die law to stay in effect, underscoring its urgent desire to defend a legal challenge to the End of Life Option Act and reassure anxious patients with terminal illness.
By submitting an emergency request, the government lawyers are signaling to the court that they intend to be aggressive in pursuing a decision on the case.
The move came in response to a ruling issued by a judge in Riverside County’s Superior Court last Tuesday that the Legislature made a procedural misstep when it passed the historic law.
“We are taking action today to reverse the trial court’s decision and keep the California End of Life Option Act in place during the appeals process,” said a California Department of Justice spokesperson.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra was allowed five days to ask the judge to suspend his judgment while the state appeals the case.
The Department of Justice asked the appeals court to quickly reverse the Superior Court’s order, rather than proceed with the ordinary appeals process — and, in the meantime, stay the ruling.
“Qualified terminally ill patients who seek the options afforded by the Act may die an excruciating, painful death before this Court will be able to grant them effective relief under the normal appellate process,” according to the attorney general’s appeal.
“Additionally, health care practitioners — who now may face the possibility of criminal prosecution for providing their qualified patients with information and assistance pursuant to the Act — have an immediate need for clarity about the state of the law,” it said.
The news was welcomed by Dr. Lonny Shavelson of the Berkeley-based practice Bay Area End of Life Options, who faced the prospect of suspending or canceling a long-planned death that is scheduled for Wednesday.
“This is a tremendous relief to me and those patients,” said Shavelson, a former emergency medicine physician who works with patients who cannot find a doctor to write a prescription to end their lives.
“We have a number of patients who are really upset and very close to death and opted to take aid in dying as a route of death, and were very concerned that they may not get the choice they wanted,” he said.
“My hope is this will eventually blow over,” said Shavelson. He asserted that opponents “are looking for a procedural loophole, and this will show that looking for a procedural loophole doesn’t work.”
The End-of-Life Option Act allows physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to Californians diagnosed as having less than six months to live. At least 111 terminally ill people have used it to end their lives.
The ruling by Riverside County’s Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia is narrow and technical, based on his finding of a procedural misstep: The law wasn’t enacted correctly. He didn’t find fault with the law itself.
The law was passed in a special legislative session to fix health care funding for the poor – a gambit that allowed them to bypass opponents. Senate sponsors Bill Monning, D-Carmel, and Lois Wolk, D-Davis, defended the unusual strategy back then, saying time was of the essence.
This angered opponents, who said the special session was called to deal with a funding shortfall — to help the poor — and not for a vote on a controversial measure.
The case will be heard by a panel of three judges from the generally conservative Fourth District California Court of Appeal, Division Two, located in Riverside and governing Riverside, San Bernardino, and Inyo counties.
But the fight likely won’t stop there. One way or another, the law will end up at the state’s Supreme Court.
If the courts strike down the law, proponents say they’ll take the campaign back to the Legislature – reopening a wrenching debate with testimonies from both the dying and the devout.
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“Words cannot express the gratitude and relief that I feel thanks to this action by Attorney General Becerra,” said Matt Fairchild, a terminally ill 48-year-old retired Army staff sergeant in Burbank who advocated for the law, in a prepared statement.
“Knowing I still have the option of medical aid in dying if my suffering becomes intolerable brings me comfort,” he said, “because I will not have to endure a needlessly agonizing death.”

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