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'Right-to-Die' Ruling Stands

The U.S. Supreme Court dismisses a claim by Florida Gov. Bush, clearing the way for the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

January 25, 2005|By John-Thor Dahlburg and David G. Savage | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court refused to get involved Monday in the case of Terri Schiavo, clearing the way for the husband of the severely brain-damaged Florida woman to have her feeding tube unhooked by a state court order.

Barring an unlikely change of heart by Florida judges, Schiavo, now 41, could die soon in a nursing home -- nearly 15 years after she lapsed into a vegetative state.

"It's judicial homicide. They want to murder her," Robert Schindler, Schiavo's father, told reporters Monday. "I have no idea what the next step will be. We are going to fight for her as much as we can fight for her. She deserves a chance."

The justices dismissed without comment Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's claim that he had the power and responsibility to keep Schiavo alive after a state judge authorized removal of the tube through which she received food and water.

The governor was appealing a September decision by Florida's Supreme Court that found "Terri's Law" -- a measure passed by the state Legislature that gave Bush the one-time power to order the tube reinstated -- violated the separation of powers.

"The effect of this decision is that Terri Schiavo will die of starvation and dehydration as the result of a judicial death warrant," said Ken Connor, who served as Bush's counsel in the case. Courts have done more to protect the rights of convicted murderers than a helpless woman like Schiavo, Connor said.

But other attorneys involved with what has become one of America's most celebrated right-to-die cases said it was too early to say that the protracted legal battles surrounding Schiavo were over.

George Felos, the lawyer for Schiavo's husband, Michael, said he had no idea when Florida judges would halt "the merry-go-round of litigation" generated by the woman's parents.

David C. Gibbs III, lead counsel for Robert and Mary Schindler, said Monday evening that he would be moving on three fronts in state courts to try to keep Terri Schiavo alive. On Friday, Gibbs said, he will assert that her right to due process has been violated because she never had a lawyer to represent her and never was brought into a courtroom.

"In my opinion, this case is going to continue forward for at least a few more months, if not for a few more years," Gibbs said.

Terri Schiavo is being cared for at a hospice in Pinellas County on Florida's Gulf Coast, and her condition is stable, Felos said. Her husband and the Schindlers once were friendly, but no longer talk because of deep disagreements over how to care for her and what she would have wanted.

In 1998 -- eight years after Terri Schiavo went into cardiac arrest, temporarily cutting off the oxygen to her brain and causing widespread damage to the cerebral cortex -- her husband, a nurse, successfully petitioned a Florida court to have her food and water tubes removed. He said she had told him that she never wanted to be kept alive artificially.

Her parents opposed, pointing out that their daughter could breathe on her own and was not terminally ill.

They also have said Michael Schiavo cannot be trusted to act in his wife's best interest. Since Terri Schiavo has been incapacitated, Michael Schiavo has had two children with another woman.

Michael Schiavo has had his wife's tube removed twice, but it was reinserted on a judge's order in 2001 and on the governor's two years later. A state judge's order authorizing its removal has been stayed until the lawsuits brought by Terri Schiavo's parents are resolved.

Saving Schiavo is a cause that has been embraced by many conservative Christian groups. To some, the former insurance clerk has come to epitomize the overeagerness of judges and care providers to curtail medical care, especially when it is costly.

"The Schiavo case is important because, if Terri's death sentence is carried out, others similarly disabled will be in danger," said Dana Cody, attorney and executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation of Napa, Calif.

The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to intervene came on the same day as thousands of antiabortion protesters marched in Washington. In comments to the marchers, President Bush -- brother of Florida's governor -- echoed the theme raised in Jeb Bush's legal appeal.

"The essence of civilization is this: The strong have a duty to protect the weak," the president said by telephone from Camp David, Md. "We know that in a culture that does not protect the most dependent, the handicapped, the elderly, the unloved, or simply inconvenient become increasingly vulnerable."

But the Schiavo case did not come to the high court as a test of the new "right to life" or the "right to die." Instead, the legal dispute turned on the respective powers of courts and lawmakers. The Florida Supreme Court, in its ruling last autumn, told lawmakers they could not "nullify" a court's final judgment. In his appeal, Gov. Bush's lawyers argued that he had a right to protect a "class of vulnerable individuals."

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