Disabled woman's case heard before Florida's highest court

Justices question legality of measure passed to prolong Terri Schiavo's life

September 01, 2004|By John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Supreme Court questioned yesterday the constitutionality of a special law that allowed Gov. Jeb Bush to bypass a lower court ruling and order a feeding tube reinserted to keep a brain-damaged woman alive.

During a hearing of oral arguments about the law, Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente suggested it was both an unlawful grant of "unfettered discretion" to the governor and a political encroachment on the judicial branch.

Justice Charles T. Wells seemed to disapprove greatly that the Legislature had "set aside the final judgment of the court." His colleague, R. Fred Lewis, asked whether any civil case judgment might now be reversed by another vote of Florida's lawmakers.

Terri Schiavo, 40 and bedridden, has spent the past 14 years in a persistent vegetative state after suffering a cardiac arrest. Florida lawmakers and Bush intervened last year when Schaivo's feeding tube was removed under court order, the result of a protracted legal battle that her husband Michael Schiavo won against her parents.

"The courts do not possess exclusive domain to protect the rights of disabled people and make sure their health-care choices are respected," said Ken Connor, one of the lawyers representing Bush before the high court. Connor also said the results of the law and the governor's action weren't necessarily irreversible.

"It wasn't like an order that said so-and-so shall be hanged by the neck until dead," he said.

George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo, called the law an unjustifiable intrusion into a defenseless woman's privacy.

"The essential question here is: Who is entitled to make a decision on something so personal and private as whether to use life support," Felos said. "Does that power reside with the patient? Or does that power reside with the state?"

In 1990, an eating disorder had temporarily stopped Terri Schiavo's heart and cut off oxygen to her brain. Eight years later, Michael Schiavo filed a petition to disconnect his wife's feeding tube, saying she had told him that she would never want to be kept alive artificially. Last year a state court gave him permission to have the tube removed, an action that would have led to Terri Schiavo's death.

Seven days after the feeding tube was removed, "Terri's Law" was hastily adopted by the Florida Legislature on Oct. 22. The law, in effect for just 15 days, empowered Bush to order a one-time resumption of nutrition and hydration to anyone in Terri Schiavo's precise circumstances.

Medical specialists who examined Terri Schiavo diagnosed what is called persistent vegetative state, where all areas of the brain except the stem have ceased functioning.

"My own view is that there is nothing resembling human life there. It's just respiration and metabolism," said Allan Meisel, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh.

He said the fate of Terri's Law was of great importance in determining whether a national consensus endures on allowing a relative to make certain decisions for an incapacitated patient.

"With the [George W.] Bush administration and feeling that there has been a takeover of the government by the religious right, there is concern that if Terri Schiavo's husband is not allowed, in his view, to exercise her wishes, then many other people could be in the same situation," Meisel said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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