A unanimous Florida Supreme Court issued a ringing decision Thursday, striking down the so-called Terri Schiavo law and, in the process, protecting the bedrock principle of separation of powers.
"(T)his case is about maintaining the integrity of a constitutional system of government with three independent and coequal branches," wrote Chief Justice Barbara Pariente for the court. All seven justices, even those appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, joined the single opinion, sending an unambiguous signal that what the Legislature and the governor did by undermining a court order in the Schiavo case cannot be allowed to stand.
Since 1990, Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state. Since 1998, her husband, Michael Schiavo, has sought to remove life supports in accordance with what he asserted would be her wishes. Despite aggressive and bitter legal challenges by Terri's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, every court that reviewed the case has expressed great sympathy for the Schindlers but ultimately agreed with Michael that Terri has no chance of recovery and that he is her appropriate medical surrogate for end-of-life decisions.
"At this point, much of (Terri's) cerebral cortex is simply gone and has been replaced by cerebral spinal fluid," wrote the 2nd District Court of Appeal on the severity of Terri's medical status, "Medicine cannot cure this condition." The courts have also agreed that Terri would want to be free to have a natural death.
But while the courts studied facts and applied the law, the Legislature and the governor charged ahead on pure emotion and political calculus.
On Oct. 21, 2003, six days after Terri's feeding and hydration tube was removed by court order, the Legislature in special session passed a law giving the governor sole authority to order the tube's replacement.
Bush immediately exercised that authority, sweeping aside a final court judgment and Terri's privacy rights.
This lawmaking-by-circus was a response to a national hysteria that had been whipped up by the Schindlers and right-to-life groups, including the notorious founder of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry.
Pariente's eloquent prose laid out two primary reasons that Terri's law is unconstitutional. First, it violates the separation of powers by nullifying a final order of the judicial branch. "If the Legislature with the assent of the governor can do what was attempted here," Pariente wrote, "the judicial branch would be subordinated to the final directive of the other branches. . . . Vested rights could be stripped away based on popular clamor." Second, the law improperly delegates legislative power to the governor because it left the decision to reinsert the tube to Bush's sole discretion, without providing criteria or guidance.
These six years of legal wrangling over Terri's fate have undoubtedly been personally devastating to Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers. There is no way to know the pain these caring family members have gone through. But the pain has only been prolonged by the irresponsible actions of the Legislature and the governor, who stepped into this family's tragedy in contravention of their constitutional duty.
Now that the court has set things right, it is time to let Terri's wishes be respected in peace.