The New Mexico Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments Monday in a case that could decide whether some terminally ill patients in the state can end their lives.
The case involves a Santa Fe woman with advanced uterine cancer who is asking the courts to clarify New Mexico's laws preventing her from ending her life and putting doctors in legal trouble.
Last year, Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash ruled the New Mexico Constitution prohibits the state from depriving a person of life, liberty or property without due process.
Nash also found doctors could not be prosecuted under the state's assisted-suicide law, which classifies helping with suicide as a fourth-degree felony.
Nash's ruling came after a two-day trial in December 2013 in which two doctors and Aja Riggs, the Santa Fe woman, asked the judge to determine that physicians would not be breaking the law if they wrote prescriptions for competent, terminally ill patients who wanted to end their lives.
Riggs and doctors Katherine Morris and Aroop Mangalik filed their lawsuit in 2012.
The New Mexico Attorney General's Office, under former Attorney General Gary King, appealed.
ACLU lawyer Laura Schauer Ives said the Attorney General's Office took the position that only the Legislature could change laws governing patients' decisions to end lives, not the courts.
"We strongly disagree," Ives said.
The appeals court could take six months to year to issue a final ruling, Ives said.
The lawsuit has the support of the ACLU of New Mexico, Denver-based Compassion & Choices and the New Mexico Psychological Association, the state's largest organization of professional psychologists.
The psychologists' group argued that assisted suicide and "aid in dying" for terminally ill patients were fundamentally different.
A New Mexico ACLU spokesman said Riggs' cancer is in remission but is a type that likely will return.
Riggs said she wanted to live but also wanted the option of dying if her condition worsened.