Academic journal article Albany Law Review

An Unfortunate Misstep: The New York Court of Appeals' Rejection of Aid-in-Dying in Myers V. Schneiderman

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

An Unfortunate Misstep: The New York Court of Appeals' Rejection of Aid-in-Dying in Myers V. Schneiderman

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The New York Court of Appeals recently considered a challenge to the validity and constitutionality of New York's Assisted Suicide Statute as applied to aid-in-dying--the medical practice of providing a mentally-competent, terminally-ill patient with a prescription for lethal medication that the patient may choose to take in order to bring about a peaceful death if the patient finds his or her dying process unbearable. In considering this important issue, the court had an opportunity to be at the forefront of the tide of change in public policy and opinion concerning aid-in-dying. Instead, the court declined to uphold the fundamental liberties enshrined in the New York Constitution. Without the benefit of a factual record, the court held that the New York Constitution does not protect a dying patient's right to control the course of his or her medical treatment through aid-in-dying. (1) It affirmed dismissal of the case in a decision "that future generations will look back on... as an unfortunate misstep." (2)

Plaintiffs in this case were patients who sought aid-in-dying and physicians and medical professionals whose ability to practice medicine and exercise professional judgment was hampered by the Assisted Suicide Statute. (3) Together they sought an affirmative judicial declaration that the Assisted Suicide Statute does not apply to aid-in-dying because (i) the term "suicide" in the Assisted Suicide Statute does not, as a matter of statutory construction, encompass aid-in-dying; and (ii) in the alternative, criminal proscription of aid-in-dying violates the New York State Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process. (4)

Shortly after the complaint was filed, the State filed a pre-answer motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that aid-in-dying, by its nature and as a matter of law, constituted "assisted suicide" and that none of the complaint's allegations provided any reason to stray from New York's longstanding opposition to "assisted suicide." (5) The motion court, the New York Supreme Court of New York County, agreed, holding that plaintiffs had failed to state a claim, and rejected the state constitutional claims. (6)

The Appellate Division for the First Department affirmed the trial court dismissal, holding that the Assisted Suicide Statue provides a valid statutory basis to prosecute physicians offering aid-in-dying and that such a prosecution would not violate the New York State Constitution. (7) The Appellate Division flatly rejected the possibility of a distinction between aid-in-dying and suicide and found no violation of equal protection or due process. (8)

In a per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division, by flatly rejecting the possibility of a distinction between aid-in-dying and suicide and reiterating that, as a matter of law, aid-in-dying could be lawfully prosecuted under the Assisted Suicide Statute. (9)

The New York Court of Appeals erred for three reasons. First, the court applied the incorrect standard of review at the motion to dismiss stage. Second, the court mischaracterized the fundamental right at issue in the case. Finally, the court failed to recognize changing circumstances and shifting public attitudes towards aid-in-dying. In doing so, the court not only disregarded well-established precedent, (10) but ignored unique aspects of the New York State Constitution critical to the resolution of this case and failed to honor New York's "proud tradition" of protecting fundamental liberties. (11)

I. A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF AID-IN-DYING

A. What Is Aid-In-Dying?

Aid-in-dying is a recognized term of art for the medical practice of providing a mentally-competent, terminally-ill patient with a prescription for medication that the patient may choose to take in order to bring about a peaceful death if the patient finds his or her dying process unbearable. …

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