Published April 01, 2005
Republicans, many of whom led the charge to focus federal attention on Terri Schiavo (search), are vowing to hold the judiciary system responsible for rulings in the case that some believe were tantamount to murder.
"This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) said Thursday after receiving news of Schiavo's death.
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today. Today we grieve, we pray, and we hope to God this fate never befalls another."
Schiavo died Thursday after going almost 14 days without food, water or nutrients following the removal of her feeding tube on March 18. Her husband, Michael Schiavo (search), had argued for years that his wife would not want to continue in the persistent vegetative state that court-appointed doctors said she was in. But Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler (search), had maintained their daughter would want to live and that she could get better with therapy.
While Democrats on Thursday lamented Congress' intervention in the ordeal, some Republicans vowed to cure what they considered to be a moral injustice.
"This is almost a declaration of war from conservatives against the judiciary," said Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon.
Sen. Rick Santorum (search), R-Pa., said Schiavo not only was a daughter and a sister but "most importantly, an innocent person was penalized by a court system that grants convicted murderers fair treatment under the law, but not a woman whose only crime was not filing a living will."
He added: "The actions on the part of the Florida court and the U.S. Supreme Court are unconscionable. In California, Scott Peterson, a convicted murderer, was sentenced to death, yet his constitutional rights were upheld to ensure that he received due process and fair consideration in court. Terri Schiavo was given a death sentence, and passed away without the right to due process."
In a later conference call with reporters, Santorum said the courts had practiced nothing less than "judicial tyranny" in this case and took aim at those who say Congress overstepped its bounds.
"[This is] routinely done by the courts — deciding they are now a super-legislature," Santorum said. "I'm not sure if the press realizes how serious this conflict is between the branches of government and how gravely concerned members of Congress are with [the] kinds of judicial tyranny we've seen. ...
"To suggest Congress has exceeded power shows you there are judges who simply ignore written law and substitute their own judgments."
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy didn't let comments like that slide, however.
"I believed that the courts are the fairest forum to do what is right in this case. I intend to do all I can to see that any action Congress takes is constructive and free from partisan politics, and does not make a tragic situation worse by exploiting this terrible tragedy," said the senior senator from Massachusetts.
"Mr. DeLay's comments today were irresponsible and reprehensible. I'm not sure what Mr. DeLay meant when he said 'the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.' But at a time when emotions are running high, Mr. DeLay needs to make clear that he is not advocating violence against anyone ... it is time for mourning and healing not for more inflammatory rhetoric, and responsible national leaders should understand that and stop this exploitation."
Democrats generally have argued that the federal government should not intervene in such a personal issue and agreed that the decision whether to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube rested rightfully with the Florida state courts. But a few, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (search), joined Republicans in pushing through Congress a bill on the weekend the feeding tube was removed that called for a federal review of the case.
As court after court — at both the state and federal level — denied Schiavo's parents' requests to have the tube reinserted, GOP calls for judicial reform grew louder, even in the face of polls showing the American people wanted Congress to stay out of their personal lives.
Democrats conceded that although the judges' decisions to essentially let Schiavo die didn't sit well with many Americans, those decisions were made in accordance with the law and not with emotion.
"This also really tested our system of government," said former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost of Texas. "We are a nation of laws. The most conservative court in history … the 11th Circuit ... said that this matter was handled appropriately according to the laws of the United States … you don't make special exceptions just for one person. This was a family matter and it needed to be decided in accordance with the laws of the state in which she lives."
Lawmakers and congressional observers said there's no doubt the role of the judiciary and how judges approach such touchy subjects as death and dying will likely be reviewed by Congress when lawmakers return from their Easter recess.
"Congress must right this wrong by ensuring that incapacitated Americans may not be deprived of their inalienable right to life without the assurance of the due process of law that our federal courts were established to protect," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "This will be Terri Schiavo's legacy."
Former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr said the court system doesn't necessarily have to be reformed based on decisions made in the Schiavo case.
But "we want to make sure the laws the judiciary is there to interpret and apply are good and humane laws," Starr said.
Speaking with reporters later in Houston, DeLay said lawmakers "will look at an arrogant and out of control judiciary that thumbs its nose at Congress and the president."
He added: "I never thought I'd see the day when a U.S. judge stopped feeding a living American so that they took 14 days to die."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan declined to join in the judicial criticism. "We would have preferred a different decision from the courts ... but ultimately we have to follow our laws and abide by the courts," he said.
Some Republicans have said at the very least, judges should have allowed guardianship of Schiavo to be transferred from her husband to her parents.
"Because of this, I think you're going to see much more acrimonious consideration of federal judges," said former Ohio Rep. John Kasich, a Republican who also hosts FOX News' "Heartland."
"I can't for the life of me figure out why they didn't let the mother and father be in a position to take care of their daughter."
Judge Andrew Napolitano, senior judicial analyst for FOX News, said one move states could make to alleviate similar situations in the future is "if legislatures write laws that give courts guidance on how to address these situations, that will help make it clearer and fairer for people who unfortunately get trapped" in such physical states.
Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said states and Congress should try to make the courts more beholden to the people and the elected representatives chosen by the people.
"I think it has once again cast a light on the need to address the role of courts and judges in our society. The people's representatives ought to have some say in this and the idea that we're sort of beholden to the role of judges" is ridiculous, Lessner said. "I think that's problematic to most conservatives and I think this case has done the most to highlight that."
President Bush has in the past blasted what he calls "activist judges" who he says have acted more in accordance with their own personal reinterpretation of the law rather than abiding strictly by the Constitution. The gay-marriage issue, when several state judges ruled that prohibiting gay and lesbian couples to marry was unconstitutional, was one issue where these judges were targeted by Republicans.
The Senate continues to be deadlocked on some judicial nominees sent to the chamber by President Bush. The Schiavo case is just the latest in a string of cases that may be in the back of lawmakers' minds when these judges come to the floor for a vote.
"As you look at the judges who are activists in the manner I've suggested, those judges are not conservative, but liberal and not [following] the law," said Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. "To suggest this was unimportant is a judicial creation ... not how the law is intended to be interpreted. President Bush is putting forward judges who don't do that."
Later on Thursday, Kennedy said Schiavo's case underscored the need for an independent federal judiciary. He said the decision by the GOP-controlled Congress to intervene in her case was part of a pattern that includes talk of changing Senate rules to override Democratic opposition to Bush's judicial appointments.
Republican Sen. John McCain rejected DeLay's characterization of federal judges on Friday. "I don't agree with it," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."
"But I do believe this issue of judges is a hot issue," said the Arizona lawmaker. "I don't think the Democrats should be blocking the president's appointments."