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Judge dismisses need for witnesses in Schiavo case

CLEARWATER, Fla. (BP)-A circuit court judge has announced that he needs neither testimony from witnesses nor a jury in order to decide the constitutionality of the quick action by the Florida legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush to save the life of Terri Schiavo last October.

Circuit Court Judge Douglas W. Baird told attorneys for Bush Dec. 23 he is ready to rule on the constitutionality of “Terri’s Law,” which permitted the governor to counteract an earlier court order that had removed Schiavo’s feeding tube.

Baird’s announcement opens the door for the removal of the 40-year old brain-damaged woman’s source of nourishment and hydration.

Baird, who previously has indicated he believes the action in behalf of Schiavo was unconstitutional, did not issue his decision immediately but said he will wait until an appeals court rules on three actions Bush has filed in the case. It is unclear when the appeals court will rule, although legal observers suggest it could be days or weeks.

Terri Schiavo, who collapsed in 1990 due to unusual circumstances that caused her heart to stop beating, is now in what some doctors term a “persistent vegetative state.”

Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband and legal guardian, has been in a bitter dispute for nearly a decade with Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, who believe she never received the therapy that would have allowed her to improve.

Michael Schiavo, according to court records, has not sought aggressive therapy for Terri in nearly a decade. After winning a malpractice settlement in 1992, Michael placed a “do not resuscitate” order on Terri and, more than eight years ago, he began a long-term relationship with another woman with whom he has now fathered two children.

In October, the case received national attention after the Florida legislature empowered Bush to issue an executive order which provided for the reinsertion of Terri’s feeding and hydration tube which Michael Schiavo, with court approval, had doctors remove six days earlier. It was predicted that Terri would have died within 10 days had her only source of nutrition and hydration not be reestablished.

In court documents filed since that time, Baird has refused a request by Bush attorneys to interview witnesses. One of the witnesses would have been Michael Schiavo’s live-in girlfriend. Others included caregivers who have had contact with Terri Schiavo and who might have been able to speak to her husband’s claim that it would be her wish to die because of her medical condition.

“The prognosis is gloomy,” said Kenneth Connor, who represents Bush and the legislature, according to a WorldNetDaily report. If the governor loses, Connor said he will appeal.

Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, told reporters he is “encouraged” by Baird’s decision against new testimony, but did not claim victory. Felos cited privacy issues in charging Terri’s law unconstitutional.

Connor argued, however, that Bush’s actions were necessary to protect Terri Schiavo, one of Florida’s most “particularly vulnerable” citizens.

Terri’s Law has provided an extra layer of protection in cases where there are no written directives by requiring an independent advocate be appointed to represent Terri Schiavo’s interests.

“The implications of this case reach beyond the life and death of the young woman in this heart-wrenching tragedy,” Bush said in a statement. “The law insures Floridians who cannot speak for themselves will have an independent, neutral representative to advocate for their interests and wishes. If we abandon the law, we accept a dangerous precedent with the power to erode the rights of self-determination of people with disabilities.”

The governor’s questions are similar to those raised in a petition filed by Terri Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, seeking the removal of Michael Schiavo as Terri’s guardian. The petition charged Michael Schiavo could have both abused and neglected Terri and that he has had an apparent conflict of interest.

Lawyers on both sides expect Baird’s pending ruling is just another step before the case eventually ends up before the Florida Supreme Court.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness. For more information see “Terri Schiavo: A life at stake” at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan