On June 10, 2022, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey filed an opinion in Petro v. Platkin, which has been approved for publication and thus will have precedential effect. The unanimous panel affirmed an Order entered by Judge Robert Lougy on April 1, 2020, dismissing the complaint challenging the validity of the New Jersey Medical Aid in Dying Act, often referred to by the acronym MAID, which authorizes a physician to prescribe medication to be self-administered by a patient for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. The trial court had ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the challenge. The group of plaintiffs were composed of a terminally ill patient, a physician, and a pharmacist. Nonetheless, Judge Lougy addressed the merits of plaintiffs’ asserted unconstitutionality of the MAID on various grounds. He found them without merit.
In his opinion for the Appellate Division, Judge Natali agreed with the ruling as to lack of standing. He supported this conclusion with references to People ex rel. Becerra v. Superior Ct., and Lee v. Oregon, cases in which healthcare professionals lacked standing to challenge similar legislation in California and Oregon.
In addition, the court provided an “extensive amplification” of the lower court opinion “because of the significant issues raised related to the treatment of terminally ill patients as permitted under the Act.” The plaintiffs’ theory of the case asserted the following violations: (1) the New Jersey constitutional right to defend life; (2) equal protection; (3) the rights of health care providers under the Advance Directives Act; (4) the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution; (5) the common law; (6) federal statutes regulating disposal of controlled substances; (7) the physician’s right to practice medicine (8) the duty to warn pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-16; (9) the Administrative Procedure Act because of a total lack of agency regulation; (10) the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution; and (11) the requirement to not falsify records.
The forty-four-page opinion reviews the legislative history and structure of the MAID and evaluates the various alleged constitutional and non-constitutional defects. It quickly but comprehensively rejected these claims. An important component of this analysis is an emphasis on the voluntary nature of participation in the MAID, whether by healthcare professional or patient.
This ruling is consistent with long-standing New Jersey law regarding an individual’s right to autonomy and privacy in the making of end-of-life decisions that can be traced back to In re Quinlan, a case later recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States as “seminal” in the development of this area of the law. The Legislature recognized that legacy in setting forth the intent and purpose of this law.
It would seem unlikely that the New Jersey Supreme Court will accept the case for further review, let alone reverse the outcome. It is uncertain how the current U.S. Supreme Court might react. The Quinlan rationale was initially based on a constitutional right of privacy although later supplemented with reliance on common law informed consent principles. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. This decision potentially undermines the right of privacy, especially given comments in Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion, regardless of the disclaimers in Justice Alito’s opinion for the majority. This looming development casts assessment of the Petro case in a different light.