ANNAPOLIS — A controversial and emotional bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide failed in the Senate after one legislator violated Senate rules and refused to vote.
The 23-23 preliminary vote on an amended Senate bill — one short of the necessary number needed to pass —Wednesday represents the closest that supporters have ever come to passing the bill.
Sen. Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s, sealed the bill’s fate by deciding not to decide.
Instead, Patterson sat in his seat after a lengthy and emotional floor debate and declined to push either the yes or no button.
“I decided really that I couldn’t bring myself to believe that I was ready to reveal just — affirmatively — how I felt about this issue so I just stayed neutral,” he said afterwards.
Patterson bristled at questions about whether he failed to do his job by not casting a vote.
“I think I did do my job,” said Patterson. “I think I researched it. I talked with folks, and my decision today was not to cast a vote, but I did my job. I did not relinquish my responsibility to thoroughly review all of the concerns I had about the bill. At the end of the day, I just felt I could not cast a vote.”
The Senate vote ends efforts to pass the legislation this year.
A similar bill has passed the House. The Senate version differed in a number of ways from the House version and would have needed House approval before going to the governor. Hogan has never said if he would sign or veto the measure had it progressed that far.
The bill proposed allowing terminally ill patients over age 21 to request and receive life-ending medication from their physicians who conclude they have at most six months to live. Qualifying patients would be given a prescription for a life-ending dose of medication, which they would have to administer themselves.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee amended the bill last week to require that the patient’s illness would have to be “progressive,” “irreversible” and have “a significant impact on quality of life.”
The bill, as passed by the House this month, required only a six-months-or-less prognosis by an attending physician and a consulting medical specialist.
Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the Senate version and vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, expressed disappointment in the outcome.
“I knew it was going to come down to one vote, and I knew that Senator Patterson was going to be the swing vote,” said Smith. “I didn’t know he was going to not vote. This still represents progress. Never before has this bill come out of the House. Never before has it come out of a Senate committee. And we had 23 senators go along with this, so I’m proud of the work we did.”
Smith said he spoke to Patterson before the vote in an attempt to gain his support but said he told the Patterson to “do what you think is right.”
Smith said he remains committed to the issue and will sponsor the legislation again but probably not in 2020.
“This issue is still open and the dialogue goes forward,” said Smith.
Senate rules require lawmakers to cast a vote on all bills if they are in the chamber and at their seat. In recent weeks Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has chastised lawmakers of his own party for failing to vote on bills while in the chamber.
Patterson, who is in his first term as a state senator, previously served 12 years in the House of Delegates.
Smith declined to criticize Patterson, saying he understood the issue is a personal one for many lawmakers.
“This is something he’ll have to deal with himself, and he’ll have to ask these questions and be reflective,” said Smith. “But, yeah, we’re all here to do a job and take votes and make tough decisions.”
When asked if his decision to not vote was a violation of Senate rules, Patterson responded: “I don’t know if it is, but I had to vote my conscience, and that is what I did.”
“I understand my job very well,” Patterson said. “I’ve been down here a number of years, but this was a vote that I felt I had not prepared myself to take an affirmative vote so I did not cast a vote.”
Like many others who have debated the issue, Patterson, a practicing Baptist who is active in his church, said religion and personal experience played a role in his decision.
“I have experienced this on both sides,” Patterson told reporters, though he declined to elaborate. “I did what I thought I had to do, and I don’t regret what I did today.”
Patterson said he kept a tally of constituents who expressed a position on the legislation. That count for and against was evenly split, he said.
“I’m willing to face my voters any day and be accountable,” said Patterson. “I’m always accountable.”
Despite the rules, it is not unheard of for lawmakers in both chambers to take a walk — sometimes literally leaving the House or Senate — on voting on bills. Ultimately, there is little consequence beyond a public shaming of sorts.
No penalties are delineated in the rules, and most lawmakers aren’t reprimanded for it unless another lawmaker raises the issue on the floor.
Earlier this year, Del. Rick Impallaria, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, declined to vote on a resolution censuring Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, D-Harford, for her use of a racial slur.
Similarly this year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. publicly chastised Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s and Senate Democratic Caucus chairman, for failing to vote on a bill. Rosapepe, when asked by Miller if he wanted to vote on the bill in question, declined.
On Wednesday, Miller was seated on the floor and Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, was presiding over the Senate session.
“The Senate rules are there and it’s up to the individual senators to follow them,” said a spokesman for Miller. “Had the Senate President been presiding and somebody had pointed it out he would have called on Senator Patterson, but he wasn’t presiding and no senator stood up and objected.”