WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush Jan. 24 to overturn a decision by the Florida Supreme Court, which had ruled unconstitutional a law keeping a 41-year-old disabled woman alive.
In what Bush attorney Ken Connor said might be a wake-up call for handicapped people in Florida and throughout the nation, the high court left standing a decision by the Florida Supreme Court that Bush and the legislature did not have the right to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a severely disabled woman whose husband has sought actively to end her life.
“This is a very sobering and troubling result for handicapped Floridians,” Connor said during a conference call for reporters.
Citing the impact of the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the Florida court’s decision, Connor said the precedent might be troublesome “not just for handicapped Floridians, but for handicapped individuals all over this country.”
The woman at the center of the legal debate, Schiavo has been in what some doctors consider a persistent vegetative state since 1990, when she collapsed in her home. She currently is fed artificially through a feeding and nutrition tube several times a day.
Connor told reporters the governor “obviously regrets the decision” which leaves him with no recourse.
Bush, Connor said, “has exerted the maximum effort to pursue all legal avenues” in the case, “first and foremost because this case involves the protection of an innocent life -– the life of Terri Schiavo.”
Her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo — who has fathered two children with his live-in girlfriend while remaining married to Terri — has sought the removal of his wife’s feeding tube for nearly a decade, saying it is what she would have wanted.
However, no written request from Terri Schiavo exists. Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have long maintained that their daughter has not received the rehabilitation and care she requires.
“This case really demonstrates in bold relief the important need to provide a better way to deal with end of life issues for vulnerable adults,” Connor told reporters.
Schiavo’s feeding tube was discontinued in October 2003, but the Florida legislature passed a law giving Bush the authority to order the continuation of artificial feeding. He did so, and Michael Schiavo challenged the constitutionality of the law, which subsequently was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in September 2004.
“It’s judicial homicide. They want to murder her,” her father, Robert Schindler, told the Associated Press in reaction to the decision. “I have no idea what the next step will be. We’re going to fight for her as much as we can fight for her. She deserves a chance.”
Though the case has reached an end for the governor, Connor said the Schindlers have several matters still pending before Florida courts.
One is a motion before the Second District Court of Appeals, asking it to rehear a motion involving Terri’s religious liberties as a practicing Catholic in light of a declaration by the Pope last year that removal of a feeding tube is not compatible with Roman Catholic pro-life teachings.
Another motion filed in the past few weeks asks Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer to void his initial order allowing Terri’s feeding tube to be removed. The motion claims Terri had not been afforded independent counsel, thus depriving her of her constitutional right to due process of law.
Another motion, similar to others the Schindlers have filed in the last four years, asks the court to disqualify Michael Schiavo as Terri’s guardian based on what Connor called “obvious conflicts of interest.” The motion cites personal, financial, legal and religious issues which the Schindlers and their attorneys believe render Michael Schiavo’s decisions to not be in Terri’s best interest.
A decision from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals is expected as early as Jan. 25, according to an assistant in Gibbs Law Firm, which is representing the Schindlers. The motion to void is expected to go before Greer Jan. 28.
Pending any dissolution of a current stay put in place by Greer in October when he denied the religious liberty argument and refused to re-open the case, it appears any ongoing appeal will prevent Terri’s starvation and dehydration.
Connor said the Schindlers’ motions and request for relief raise “serious issues — not the least of which are fundamental due process and protection issues rising out of a failure to afford Terri Schiavo independent counsel when these decisions were being made.”
“In reality, in Florida, convicted capital felons receive more due process protection than Terri Schiavo,” Connor said. “This is a matter which warrants the closest scrutiny by everybody.”
Connor said anyone in a position similar to Terri Schiavo, “whom someone is seeking to starve to death or dehydrate to death, receives a low level of protection that is not consonant with the great interests that are at stake….
“Based on the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, effectively they have put their imprimatur on a procedure that effectively deprives a vulnerable adult of the right to an independent guardian ad litem and an independent counsel,” Connor said.
Connor claimed that the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed briefs in support of Michael Schiavo’s decisions, would call such treatment a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“Terri Schiavo is a person innocent utterly of any wrongdoing,” Connor said. “The governor’s position all along has been that the courts do not have a monopoly in protecting” the rights of the citizenry, and that it is the proper place of the legislature and the governor to ensure every person due process.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has represented Schindlers, said he is discouraged by the court’s action.
“It is very disappointing that the Supreme Court has refused to enter into a critically important case involving the life and death struggle of Terri Schiavo,” Sekulow said in a statement. “With the Supreme Court refusing to take the case, there are now fewer options available to protecting the life of Terri Schiavo and that’s a real tragedy. By declaring ‘Terri’s Law’ unconstitutional, the Florida courts have handed down a death sentence for her.
“We believe the Florida Governor and legislature acted constitutionally and appropriately in passing ‘Terri’s Law’ — a life-saving legislation that is at the center of the legal dispute,” Sekulow added. “While there are still legal options available in Florida, the Supreme Court’s refusal to take the case makes it more difficult for those legal options to prevail.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, available online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.