Assisted-Suicide Dispute Back in Court

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The dispute over physician-assisted suicide was back in court Wednesday, as an organization seeks to have a state judge strike the Board of Medical Examiners’ policy on the practice.

At issue is a position paper issued by the board last year saying it would evaluate complaints against doctors in assisted-suicide cases on an individual basis as it would any other medical procedure or intervention.

Montanans Against Assisted Suicide demanded the board repeal its position, saying it wrongly implies that assisted suicide is legal in Montana.

A 2009 state Supreme Court ruling found that nothing in state law explicitly prohibits physician-assisted suicide. The state Legislature this session failed to clarify whether the practice is legal or illegal.

The Board of Medical Examiners produced its position paper after a physician requested guidance from the board.

Montanans Against Assisted Suicide claims the position paper has the effect of an administrative rule — which the board lacks the authority to enact — and it issued it without notice or participation by the public.

In November, the board denied the group’s petition to strike the position paper, saying it was meant to offer instruction and guidance and it is not an administrative rule that can be challenged.

The board then filed a lawsuit in state court asking for a judicial review of the decision.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the two sides appeared in court to argue how much of the history of the debate should be included in District Judge Mike Menahan’s review.

State attorney Mike Fanning argued that the judge should only review the group’s petition and the board’s denial, saying that comprises the entirety of the record of the complaint.

Attorney Craig Charlton, who represents the group, said the record should be expanded to include an 18-inch stack of documents, which includes correspondence between the board and the group, meeting minutes and the petitions of individuals weighing in on the question.

Included in those meeting minutes is a statement by Ian Marquand, the executive director of the board, urging the board to take additional comments on the position paper for the sake of public participation.

Menahan did not make an immediate ruling.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Sept. 30.

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