Florida Guardianship Proceedings in Schiavo Case Did Not Violate Federal Law; Efforts to Override Judicial Order Discontinuing Life-Sustaining Nutrition and Hydration Also Struck Down; Rulings Not Disturbed

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A series of closely-watched judicial rulings and legislative enactments were issued that addressed the withdrawal of the nutrition and hydration tube of Theresa (Terri) Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman in Florida. On several occasions the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene, the nutrition and hydration tube was ultimately withdrawn, and Schiavo died on March 31, 2005.

Schiavo experienced cardiac arrest in 1990 after she collapsed in her home. Her heart was believed to have stopped beating for ten minutes before paramedics arrived. She suffered from an undiagnosed potassium deficiency, possibly due to extreme weight loss. Her husband later speculated that she suffered from bulimia. Schiavo's cardiac arrest left her unconscious and reliant on a nutrition and hydration tube for sustenance.

Her husband sought from a guardianship court in 1998 an order authorizing the withdrawal of the nutrition and hydration tube. This petition was opposed by Schiavo's parents. The guardianship court determined that clear and convincing evidence existed that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state and would elect to cease life-prolonging procedures if she was competent to make her own decision.

Following an extensive series of judicial appeals, this order was affirmed and Schiavo's nutrition and hydration tube was removed on October 15, 2003. Six days later, the Florida legislature enacted a law that effectively allowed the governor of Florida to order the reinsertion of the nutrition and hydration tube for Schiavo, but not for anyone else. The governor subsequently issued such an order.

Upon review, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that this legislative act constituted an impermissible encroachment on the judicial branch and a violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of powers. The court concluded that the legislature was not permitted to reverse a properly rendered final judgment by the courts. The court also determined that because the legislation provided no guidelines or standards directing the governor's actions and failed to guarantee that an incompetent patient's right to withdraw life-prolonging procedures would be honored, it represented an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the governor. Bush v. Schiavo, 885 So. 2d 321 (Fla. 2004), at http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/ 2004/ops/sc04-925.pdf, cert. denied, 125 S. Ct. 1086 (2005).

Following additional judicial review, the order authorizing withdrawal of Schiavo's nutrition and hydration tube was affirmed and it was again removed on March 18, 2005. Three days later Congress enacted and President Bush signed legislation that assigned jurisdiction over any questions regarding possible violations of the federal rights of Schiavo to the federal district court of the Middle District of Florida. Pub. L. No. 109-3, at http://news.findlaw.com.hdocs/docs/ schiavo/bill31905.html.

On March 22, the federal district court ruled that the parents had failed to show "a substantial likelihood of success on the merits," a requirement for the issuance of a temporary restraining order to reestablish nutrition and hydration for Schiavo. Among the arguments rejected were that there had been a failure to appoint a guardian ad litem during the guardianship proceedings, a failure to appoint an independent attorney to represent Schiavo's legal rights, and a denial of "access to court" because the guardianship judge did not meet Schiavo "personally" and personally assess her level of cognition and responsiveness. …