Judges strike down law keeping Fla. woman alive

Court rules state officials lacked the power to stop removal of feeding tube

The Nation

September 24, 2004|By Bob Mahlburg | Bob Mahlburg,ORLANDO SENTINEL

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's Supreme Court yesterday struck down a law that is keeping a severely brain-damaged woman alive, but whether her feeding tube will be removed anytime soon remained uncertain.

Attorneys for Gov. Jeb Bush were weighing whether to fight the ruling in the case of Terri Schiavo, who lives in a Clearwater nursing home. If the governor appeals, it would prolong a court battle that's lasted for nearly a decade and set off an international debate about right-to-die issues.

In a unanimous 7-0 decision, the high court declared "Terri's Law" unconstitutional, saying that the Legislature and governor had intruded on the power of the courts.

Long appeals possible

Bush said he was discouraged by the ruling.

"I respect the judgment of the court," Bush said. "I'm disappointed for the moral reasons of the taking of innocent life and without having, I don't think, a full hearing of what her intents were."

George Felos, an attorney for Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, said the decision should help end the matter. Michael Schiavo has been battling his wife's parents in court over whether her feeding tube should be removed, allowing her to die.

"This case has had so many twists and turns, but this is a huge milestone," Felos said.

Bush attorney Ken Connor said he was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and studying options in state courts, where a motion challenging Michael Schiavo as his wife's guardian is pending.

But legal experts doubt those efforts will get far.

"I think the decision is a total rebuke to the governor and the Legislature with respect to Terri's Law," said Mike Allen, a Stetson University professor of constitutional law. "There's no room for equivocation on what the court thinks. There is nearly zero chance the U.S. Supreme Court could hear this case."

Even Bush conceded the decision might leave few options.

"The Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of state law, so there may not be appeal avenues," he said. "If there are, we will take them. If not we will let the action of the Supreme Court stand."

`Terri's Law'

Unless challenged, the decision would become final in 10 days. But Felos was vague about the timing, saying only he is taking things one step at a time.

Last October, Michael Schiavo received a court order granting him the right to remove his wife's food and water tubes. The Florida Legislature then hastily approved "Terri's Law," which gave Bush the power to overturn the ruling.

Michael Schiavo has insisted that his 40-year-old wife, who lapsed into what her doctors have called "a persistent vegetative state" after suffering a heart attack in 1990, told him she would not have wanted to live this way.

Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, however, insist that Terri responds to them and could be taught to feed herself. Terri Schiavo left no written instructions of her wishes.

Her brother, Robert Schindler Jr., said the family finds the court's ruling "disappointing and troubling," but they won't give up.

"We're motivated by our love for Terri, and we're going to try to stay strong and find some way to save my sister," he said.

`The rule of law'

The high court effectively ruled that the Legislature stepped into a fight that the courts already decided.

"It is without question an invasion of the authority of the judicial branch for the Legislature to pass a law that allows the executive branch to interfere with the final judicial determination in a case," Chief Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.

But the ruling also acknowledged the emotional issues involved.

"We recognize that the tragic circumstances underlying this case make it difficult to put emotions aside and focus solely on the legal issue presented," Pariente wrote. "However, we are a nation of laws and we must govern our decisions by the rule of law and not by our own emotions."

Although the Supreme Court remains dominated by appointees of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, two of those joining in the unanimous decision, Justices Kenneth Bell and Raoul Cantero, are Bush appointees, and another, Justice Peggy Quince, was appointed jointly by Bush and Chiles.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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