High court rejects wife's plea in 'right to die' case Michigan ruling limits family's authority

February 21, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court rejected yesterday the plea of a Michigan woman who wants to turn off the medical machinery that keeps her brain-damaged husband alive. The action appears to give states new authority to limit the "right to die."

The court did not issue a ruling in the dispute. But it did vote to leave intact a decision by the Michigan Supreme Court that sharply reduced the authority of relatives to carry out a person's wishes to die after becoming medically hopeless.

If that individual had not spelled out the exact circumstances under which life-support systems should be withdrawn, the state court said, family members may not do so, even if they believe they know from conversations what the individual wanted.

Thus, under the state court ruling, courts would not have to accept the family's interpretation of the individual's wishes without strong evidence that the individual had made that choice.

That ruling, right-to-die organizations said, requires someone to predict some future condition and then make specific recommendations on what to do -- the kind of explicit choices few people make.

The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled in 1990 that the Constitution gives a gravely ill or dying person a right to have all life support taken away, provided the decision was that person's choice. But the court did not settle how the choice had to be conveyed nor did it spell out what role family members could exercise.

Mary Martin of Moline, Mich., sought clarification from the court about a family's right to interpret an individual's wishes after her husband, Michael, suffered a brain injury when his car was hit by a train nine years ago. Although he appears to be conscious, Mr. Martin can perform few unaided physical functions and is barely capable of recognition or able to react to stimulation.

Believing it would be his wish, Mrs. Martin has tried for the past four years to get permission to withdraw his nutrition so he would die. She recounted conversations in which he said he would not want to live if he ever became dependent on machines for survival.

A judge ruled that life support could be ended, but the Michigan Supreme Court disagreed.

Ten Commandments display

In another order, the court for the first time voted to allow a display of the Ten Commandments to remain on government property. Since the court struck down 16 years ago a Kentucky law requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in public school classrooms, the court has refused to allow any similar displays in public facilities.

Yesterday, it declined, without comment, to review the constitutionality of keeping a stone tablet bearing the Ten Commandments on the grounds of Colorado's state Capitol in Denver.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in June that the monument also includes some nonreligious symbols, and is surrounded by other nonreligious monuments, thus neutralizing the religious message of the Ten Commandments tablet.

The conservative American Center for Law and Justice said that the justices' action "is in tune with the consensus of people of faith who are tired of being marginalized in an increasingly secular society."

But Americans United for Separation of Church and State protested that the ruling was "misguided," given that the Ten Commandments convey an explicitly religious message.

Sentencing in King beating

The court held a hearing on whether the two Los Angeles police officers convicted of civil rights crimes in the 1991 beating of Rodney King will have to return to prison and serve nearly five more years. The officers, who are no longer on the force, are Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell -- both of whom were in the courtroom yesterday.

A federal judge had lowered the range of sentences the two could face, resulting in prison terms of 30 months rather than the maximum 87 months they might have received. Yesterday's hearing focused mainly on the issues of when a federal judge may impose a sentence less than federal guidelines ordinarily require and whether such decisions may be second-guessed by higher courts.

In other action, the court left standing a Pennsylvania state court ruling that the Constitution does not forbid state courts to enforce private contracts that discriminate against homosexuals and a ruling by the highest court in the military justice system upholding the conviction of a doctor for desertion for refusing to serve in the Persian Gulf war in a protest of that conflict.

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