The Schiavo ruling

The judge acknowledges questions about what Congress has done but rejects the pleas of Schiavo's parents based on the merits of their case.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 22, 2005 2:24PM (EST)

When U.S. District Judge James Whittemore issued his ruling in the Terri Schiavo case this morning, he said what was obvious to a substantial majority of Americans already: There's reason to question what Congress and the president have done.

In his 12-page ruling denying Schiavo's parent's request for a temporary restraining order, Whittemore wrote that there may be "substantial issues concerning the constitutionality" of the last-minute legislation expanding the jurisdiction of his court to hear the case. But constitutional questions about the separation of powers didn't provide the legal basis for the judge's decision -- Whittemore said he would, for purposes of the TRO proceedings, simply presume that the legislation was constitutional. That's the usual practice in federal courts, and it's one that's required by Supreme Court precedent: Don't grapple with thorny constitutional questions -- don't fight the other branches of government head-on -- if there's an easier way to resolve the case before you.

In the Schiavo case, there was an easier way. In one form or another, 19 judges have already considered arguments by Terri Schiavo's husband and Terri Schiavo's parents over what Terry Schiavo would want if she could speak for herself. The Florida courts' conclusion: Terri Schiavo would want to die. Those legal procedures -- and not the last-minute maneuvering by Congress and the White House -- formed the basis of the decision Whittemore issued this morning.

"It is apparent that Theresa Schiavo will die unless temporary injunctive relief is granted," Whittemore wrote. But such relief cannot be granted under the law unless the parties seeking it can show that they are likely to win on the merits of their lawsuit. Whittemore said that Schiavo's parents did not make such a showing; they had the chance to present their case in Florida's courts, and they failed to show him that the Florida courts had denied Terri Schiavo any of her constitutional rights.

"Theresa Schiavo's life and liberty interests were adequately protected by the extensive process provided in the state courts," the judge wrote. In essence, he wrote, there was little more to be said about Schiavo's case -- a federal trial wouldn't change things, nor would the appointment of another lawyer to represent Schiavo's interests. The parties before the court have "thoroughly advocated their competing perspectives on Theresa Schiavo's wishes," Whittemore wrote. "Another lawyer appointed by the court could not have offered more protection of Theresa Schiavo's interests."

'The court appreciates the gravity of the consequences of denying injunctive relief,'' Whittemore concluded. "Even under these difficult and strained circumstances, however, and notwithstanding Congress' expressed interest in the welfare of Theresa Schiavo, this court is constrained to apply the law to issues before it.''

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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