Florida Justices Hear Sides in Schiavo Right-to-Die Case; Witnesses Say Justices Peppered the Governor's Lawyer with Questions and Are Likely to Rule Soon on "Terri's Law."

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Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING, Capital Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE -- The legal battle over Terri Schiavo's life and law reached the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday, with attorneys for Gov. Jeb Bush squaring off against Schiavo's husband in a tug-of-war over the brain-damaged woman's rights.

The nationally watched case drew a nearly packed courtroom and strong skepticism from the seven justices who had narrowly voted in June to accept it. Schiavo, a 40-year-old woman in a Clearwater nursing home, has been mentally impaired since a 1990 heart attack and left no written directive.

Schiavo is being battled over by her husband, Michael Schiavo, who says he is following her wishes to be allowed to die, and Bush, who rushed "Terri's Law" through the Legislature in October to keep her alive. Schiavo's feeding tube had been removed, prompting her parents and supporters to lobby Bush and legislators for help to keep her alive.

On Tuesday, justices waited only seven seconds before interrupting Bush's attorney to attack his case.

"Would you agree that the governor did not have the power to order a stay on Oct. 15, 2003?" Justice Charles Wells said.

Bush attorney Robert Destro, a law school director at Catholic University of America in Washington, said Schiavo was denied her rights by Michael Schiavo, and Bush had the authority to step in and safeguard them.

"The governor historically stands in the role of the ultimate defender of civil rights in the state of Florida, sworn to see that the law is faithfully executed," Destro said. "The allegation here is Terri Schiavo was denied due process."

But Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, said Bush is trying to overturn prior court rulings that had accepted the claim Terri Schiavo had expressed a desire to die. That, Felos said, clearly violates the traditional separation of Florida's judicial, legislative and executive branches of power.

"What the governor is trying to do is re-litigate and force a re-adjudication of Terri Schiavo's rights, which have already been fully and finally litigated in the courts of the state," Felos said. "The violation here . . . is taking from the patient and giving to the state the power to make medical treatment choices."

Although justices peppered both sides with questions, they appeared more skeptical of Bush's defense and repeatedly returned to the question of whether the governor and Legislature overstepped their authority.

"When this is all boiled down, the Legislature stepped in here and reversed a decision that was final in a specific case," Wells said.

The court did not rule Tuesday, but there were signs a decision may not be far off. A court spokesman predicted a ruling by the end of the year, and attorneys for the governor said it may come before the end of this month. The case is already considered a high priority, as the 2nd District Court of Appeal had expedited it to the Supreme Court this year.

Destro said there are federal issues on which an appeal may be based, possibly as high as the U. …