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Florida Court Rules Against 'Terri's Law'

The state high court says the Legislature and Gov. Bush overstepped with a move to keep a woman in a vegetative state alive.

September 24, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — In a rebuke to Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Legislature, Florida's Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a law that empowered the governor to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman.

The law, which effectively nullified prior decisions of Florida courts concerning the 40-year-old woman who receives food and water through a tube, was found to be unconstitutional.

The justices said the hastily passed law violated the separation of powers doctrine and was an illegal delegation of policy-making authority to Bush.

Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente, writing for Florida's highest court, said she and the other six justices well understood the grief of members of Schiavo's family. The family has struggled to prevent her husband, Michael Schiavo, from obtaining a court order to have her feeding tube disconnected.

"But our hearts are not the law," Pariente wrote. "What is in the Constitution always must prevail over emotion."

"If the Legislature with the assent of the governor can do what was attempted here, the judicial branch would be subordinated to the final directive of the other branches," the court said in its 7-0 decision. "Also subordinated would be the rights of individuals, including the well-established privacy right to self determination."

The Florida governor, whose brother is President Bush, said he did not regret the legislation -- known as "Terri's Law."

Thursday's ruling in the case, which followed oral arguments Aug. 31, is almost certainly not the final word in what has become one of the most famous right-to-die cases in U.S. history, and which has dragged through the Florida legal system for more than six years. Attorneys for Gov. Bush have 10 days to seek a rehearing before the Florida Supreme Court, or they may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a separate court action, Terri Schiavo's parents are contesting their son-in-law's status as their daughter's legal guardian.

Michael Schiavo has maintained that his wife told him she did not wish to be kept alive artificially.

But her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have contended that their daughter, a Roman Catholic, would never willingly defy a papal teaching such as the one issued in March by Pope John Paul II. The statement cited the moral obligation to administer food and water, even by artificial means, to a person whose heart and lungs were still functioning.

Michael Schiavo's attorney, George J. Felos, described Thursday's court decision as "very favorable" but not final.

"One thing I learned, and we've all learned, is to take this case a day at a time, an event at a time," Felos said.

Bush's office said the governor's lawyers were reviewing the ruling and their options. Earlier on Thursday, the governor expressed dismay with the justices' decision.

"I am disappointed, not for any political reasons, but for the moral reasons," Bush said. "This is a life, and I don't think we had a full hearing on the facts of her case."

According to Associated Press, Terri Schiavo's brother, Robert Schindler Jr., said the family had found the court's ruling "disappointing and troubling." But he added: "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."

In 1990, the oxygen supply to Terri Schiavo's brain ceased when her heart stopped beating temporarily because of a chemical imbalance in her bloodstream. Neurologists have said she is in a persistent vegetative state, where higher brain functions have stopped. Now being cared for in a Clearwater nursing home, she can breathe on her own, but must be nourished and hydrated through a tube.

Florida courts twice authorized Michael Schiavo to have his wife's feeding tube unhooked -- in 2001 and last fall -- but her parents fought it. The second time, her mother and father appealed to Gov. Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which responded with a special law Oct. 21 authorizing Bush to order the feeding tube reinserted. The governor did so.

In its ruling, the Florida Supreme Court called the legislation a clear violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers. "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," the justices said. They also said Bush had been granted "unfettered discretion" to decide whether to order the tube reconnected, which the justices called an improper delegation of legislative power.

If the courts rule in Michael Schiavo's favor, he will remove his wife's food and water "soon after," Felos said.

"My client is very grateful to the Florida Supreme Court for the ruling," said Felos. "It was important not only for Terri but for all Floridians. The court made it very clear in our system of government, protection of an individual's rights requires a strong and independent judiciary."

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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