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California's right-to-die law needs high court intervention

California's right-to-die law needs high court intervention
A portrait of Brittany Maynard sits on the dais of the Senate Health Committee at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on March 25, 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A Riverside County appeals court upheld California’s right-to-die law this week, ending months of legal limbo after a Superior Court judge invalidated the law in May because he believed it had been improperly enacted.

That’s great news for the state’s terminally ill patients whose doctors may have been reluctant to write a life-ending prescription while the law was being contested in the courts. The law is now officially valid again — at least until the plaintiffs file a new challenge.

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And they very well may, because Tuesday’s ruling didn’t settle the constitutional question raised by the physicians who filed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that the Legislature exceeded its authority in 2015 by passing the measure in a special session that Gov. Jerry Brown had called to deal with Medi-Cal funding. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia agreed and struck down the law.

That was a stretch — the special session also allowed for the consideration for any healthcare-related bills, and end-of-life care is indeed a healthcare issue. If the appeals court justices had dared to consider that question, they would have come to the same conclusion.

But they didn’t even touch it. Instead, they said the court couldn’t ponder the merits because the physicians who filed the lawsuit have no standing to challenge the law. That’s because they can opt out of providing end-of-life assistance — the law allows physicians to refuse to participate. A dissenting opinion, meanwhile, explained how the plaintiffs could solve their standing problem and revive the suit.

If they do that, this case could drag on for years. That’s an unacceptable delay, and the California Supreme Court should not let that happen. If the plaintiffs don’t ask the high court to take up the case, then the justices should review it on their own motion. They have the right to do so and, we think, the obligation as well.

It’s heartless to string along terminally ill patients who may be comforted by the knowledge that they have the option to make their suffering stop if it becomes unbearable. Physicians too have an interest in settling the constitutional issue raised by this case as soon as possible. Otherwise, they may face a legal dilemma when dying patients ask for help negotiating their final days.

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