Capitol Alert

What you need to know about the court ruling against California's assisted death law

Video: Competing Capitol rallies urge action on assisted death

On opposite sides of the Capitol grounds in 2015, supporters and opponents of assisted death called on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign or veto the controversial bill.
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On opposite sides of the Capitol grounds in 2015, supporters and opponents of assisted death called on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign or veto the controversial bill.

Nearly two years after it took effect, California's controversial assisted death law is back in limbo. A judge in Riverside County on Tuesday overturned the law because of concerns about how it was passed by the Legislature. The process for dying patients to obtain life-ending drugs could be illegal again by the end of the week. Here's what you need to know.

What is assisted death?

In 2015, California became the fifth state to create a policy intended to give terminally ill adults more control over the end of their lives. If diagnosed with less than six months to live, a patient may request lethal drugs from their physician. The lengthy procedure includes multiple oral and written requests to a doctor, as well as an assessment of the patient's mental capacity to make medical decisions. The law is different from euthanasia, because the patient must be physically able to take the life-ending drugs on their own.

Why was the law rejected in court?

Opponents have expressed moral objections to assisted death and raised concerns about whether the law has enough protections in place for elderly, poor and disabled Californians who are vulnerable to being taken advantage of in the health care system. But Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia ultimately decided against the law on much narrower grounds, ruling that the Legislature passed it improperly during a special session on health care funding.

How was the law passed?

The push for assisted death initially failed during the 2015 legislative session, because the bill could not get past the Assembly Health Committee. The authors revived their proposal in a special session formed that summer, where it was approved by a reconfigured committee and then eventually signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Plaintiffs in a 2016 lawsuit argued that Brown called the special session to deal with a funding shortage for public health programs and that the assisted death law did not meet that criteria, while supporters of the law contend that it fit within Brown's stated objective to "improve the efficiency and the efficacy of the health care system." Ottolia, who has previously said he is "disturbed" by the way the law was passed, sided with the plaintiffs on Tuesday.

What comes next?

The court is holding its judgment for five days to give the state time to file an emergency appeal, so the assisted death law is not off the books just yet. Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Tuesday that he disagrees with the ruling and will seek an expedited review. The uncertainty could affect hundreds of Californians. Though current figures are not available, 258 individuals began the assisted death process in the first seven months after it became available in 2016, and 111 died from ingesting the lethal drugs during that time.

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