Florida Supreme Court Declares Terri’s Law Unconstitutional

Florida's Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down as unconstitutional a law that kept alive Terri Schiavo, a woman who suffered severe brain damage years earlier
( [email protected] ) Sep 24, 2004 05:07 PM EDT

On Sept. 23, the Florida Supreme Court declared the famous "right to live" law known as “Terri’s Law” unconstitutional. The law was passed by the Florida legislature in 2003 and signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush allowing him to override a lower court's decision which allowed Schiavo's husband, Michael, to remove the feeding tube that keeps her alive.

The 30-page ruling, written by Chief Justice Barbara Pariente, said the Florida legislature improperly delegated power to the governor and the “Terri’s law” violated the separation of powers between the judicial, legislative and executive branches of the state government.

"The desire to prevent Congress from using its power to interfere with the judgments of the courts was one of the primary motivations for the separation of powers established at this nation's founding," the court said. "It is without question an invasion of 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."

Terri Schiavo, the woman at the center of the debate, suffered severe brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped beating for several minutes. Oxygen was cut off to her brain, leaving her in what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state”. Her husband contends his wife never wanted to be kept alive artificially, but her parents express objection saying Schiavo did not leave any written instructions for such wishes. They also argue that she can be rehabilitated and shows signs of consciousness.

Terri Schiavo’s case began to attract public attention when Michael, who is engaged to and living with another woman, requested permission to end her life via euthanasia by removing her feeding tube six years ago.

Feeding and hydration tubes were removed from Schiavo last October for a second time since her collapse. On Oct. 21, 2003 Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the Legislature rushed a special law allowing the tubes to be reconnected.

A lower court ruled that "Terri's Law" violates Florida's right-of-privacy. Other critics say the statute also violates the separation of powers. Meanwhile, Michael continues to appeal Governor Bush’s decision saying that he is fulfilling his wife’s wishes.

The case was finally referred to Florida Supreme Court on August 31, 2004 and the “Terri’s law” was declared unconstitutional on Sept 23.

"We are not insensitive to the struggle that all members of Theresa's family have endured since she fell unconscious in 1990," the justices ruled. "However, we are a nation of laws and we must govern our decisions by the rule of law and not by our emotions."

While responding to the court’s decision, Ken Conner, Bush's lead attorney and former president of the Family Research Council, questioned the judiciary's ability to protect patients who are incapacitated and cannot speak for themselves. "Terri Schiavo will effectively die from starvation and dehydration," Connor said.

Connor also indicated that the governor is evaluating his options and considering a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, U.S. Supreme Court only accepts cases that involve a question of federal law. Many legal experts doubt that an appeal to the nation's highest court will fly.

The court ruling did not clearly say how soon Terri Schiavo's feeding tube can be removed. The court did give each side in the dispute 10 days to ask for a rehearing in the case.