Schiavo case turned conservatism on its head

April 02, 2005|By Gregory Kane

NOW THAT Terri Schiavo has gone -- not peacefully, but as a national spectacle -- to her maker, we are left to ponder how conservatives trashed and savaged what was supposedly their own philosophy.

Whatever happened to the conservatives who were supposed to be against big government and for states' rights, separation of powers and judicial restraint?

Those conservatives didn't show up in the imbroglio that involved Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, and her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler. No doubt trying to prove their "street cred" on the right-to-life issue to religious conservatives, President George W. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, poked their noses into a matter that would have been settled long ago by Florida law and judges if it weren't for endless appeals.

"In cases where there are serious doubts and questions," President Bush said Thursday after the news of Terri Schiavo's death, "the presumption should be in the favor of life."

How about making a presumption in favor of what the Constitution says, Mr. President?

Florida is one of more than 30 states in which one spouse makes the decisions -- including those involving life and death -- if the other spouse becomes incapacitated. That's probably why a Florida court appointed Michael Schiavo as Terri Schiavo's guardian after she suffered cardiac arrest in 1990.

In 2000, two years after Michael Schiavo asked a Florida court to remove his wife's feeding tube, Judge George Greer granted the request. The Schindlers appealed. The Florida Supreme Court denied the appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

In times past, true conservatives would have understood this. A state judge makes a ruling consistent with state law. The Supreme Court refuses to intervene. A matter for the judicial branch of government was properly handled within the judicial branch.

But today's conservatives were for conservative principles -- such as the separation of powers -- before they were against them. After the Schindlers filed another appeal, the state legislature got in on the act and passed a bill allowing Jeb Bush to order Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted after it was removed in October 2003. That law was ruled unconstitutional, as it should have been.

The appeals continued. We certainly can't blame the Schindlers for that. But we can blame the president for not having a clue about what the Constitution he swore to uphold and defend actually says. Last month, President Bush signed into law a bill that would let the case of Terri Schiavo be heard in federal court -- after the Supreme Court had refused on at least two occasions to hear it.

It was clear what the president and the federal legislators who voted for the bill wanted: a federal judge who would engage in a little judicial activism for them and repeal Florida law and overturn a decision of Florida judges.

For the Bush brothers, some conservative Republicans and right-to-lifers, this flagrant circumvention of state and federal law was justified in order to save Terri Schiavo's life. That's the "presumption" President Bush talked about after Terri Schiavo's death.

But such a presumption didn't compel him to commute the sentence of every death row inmate when he was governor of Texas, and it couldn't have been because Bush believes the justice system in his state is perfect. That nasty business in Tulia, Texas, when dozens of innocent folks ended up in prison based on the perjury of a corrupt undercover cop, happened on George W. Bush's watch when he was governor of that state.

President Bush believes in a "presumption in favor of life" when it's convenient for him. Too many conservatives these days believe in core conservative principles when it's convenient for them and discard them when they prove too nettlesome.

Take John Ashcroft, now thankfully departed as the nation's attorney general. He had no problem hustling sniper Lee Boyd Malvo from the custody of police in Maryland -- the state where he and John Muhammad were captured and should have been tried -- and handing him over to Virginia. Malvo couldn't get the death penalty in Maryland. At the time, he could in Virginia. Ashcroft's motives were clear. Other conservatives all but canonized him for his flagrant jackbooting and violation of the principles of states' rights and federalism.

The brothers Bush will no doubt score points with those folks who stood around with signs talking about the "murder" of Terri Schiavo (those folks really need to look up the definition of the word "murder") but some basic conservative doctrine took a beating on this one.

The Florida law regarding one spouse making decisions when the other can't is clear. We may not like it.

But we sure have to live with it.

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