On Thursday, March 31, 2005, Terri Schindler Schiavo, a Florida woman at the heart of a controversy over withholding nutrition and hydration from people with cognitive disabilities, died as the result of a court-ordered starvation and dehydration. From March 18, 2005, onward it was not lawful to give her any food or water.
As options to save her were being exhausted at the state level, Congress began to act to help Terri Schiavo. Two general legislative approaches were pursued. The first was an effort to extend federal habeas corpus protection to her. Later this approach was replaced by one designed to take her case out of state court and move it into federal court.
In addition to legislation, Congress sought to preserve her life by issuing a subpoena for her to appear at a hearing.
Extension of Federal Habeas Corpus Protection
House: On March 8, 2005, Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) along with 138 cosponsors introduced the Incapacitated Persons Legal Protection Act of 2005 (H.R. 1151). The bill would extend federal habeas corpus protection to an incapacitated person in situations where the person’s life was endangered and no valid advanced medical directive was in effect. H.R. 1151 was referred to Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee. No further action was taken.
Senate: On March 7, 2005, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) introduced the identical legislation in the Senate (S. 539). The measure had 14 cosponsors. S. 539 was read twice and placed on the Legislative Calendar. No further action was taken.
Removal of Case from State to Federal Court: First Bills
House: On March 16, 2005, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced the Protection of Incapacitated Persons Act of 2005 (H.R. 1332). The bill had 13 cosponsors and was passed by voice vote on the same day. H.R. 1332 did not mention Terri Schiavo by name, but was intended as more general legislation. The bill would allow the removal of the case from state court to federal court, and would direct the federal court to conduct a de novo review, essentially rehearing the case from the beginning. After passage by the House, H.R. 1332 was sent to the Senate on March 17, 2005, where it was read twice and referred to the Judiciary Committee. No further action was taken.
On March 17, 2005, the House adjourned with the next scheduled session to take place on Monday, March 21, 2005.
Senate: On March 17, 2005, Sen. Mel Martinez along with 19 cosponsors introduced S. 653, specifically allowing the parents of Terri Schiavo to have her case heard in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. S. 653 also directed the court to perform a de novo review of the case.
On a voice vote, S. 653 was passed by the Senate that day and was sent to the House, where it was received on March 20, 2005. No further action was taken on S. 653.
On March 17, 2005, the Senate adjourned with the next scheduled session on Monday, March 21, 2005.
Although both the House and Senate had each acted, neither had passed a common bill that the President could sign.
Removal of Case from State to Federal Court: Law
By order of a state court in Florida, Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed in the early afternoon of Friday, March 18, 2005. The judge rejected a subpoena issued by the U. S. House of Representatives Committee for Government Reform that was intended to protect her well being so that she could appear as a witness at a special hearing the following week.
Due to the urgency of the situation, extensive negotiations continued between members of the House and Senate and resulted in an agreement on the language of a single bill. Although originally scheduled to be in recess, the House and Senate held special sessions to address the issue.
Senate: On March 20, 2005, a slightly modified version of S. 653 was introduced by Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) as S.686. A change was made to reduce ambiguity in the instructions given to the federal district court. The new bill was passed by voice vote and it was sent to the House for consideration.
House: On March 21, 2005, shortly after midnight, the House passed S. 686, 203-yes, 58-no, 174- not voting (Roll Call 90). Two-thirds of those voting were required for passage. Since the House and Senate versions of the bill were identical, the measure went directly to the President for his signature.
Executive: In the early morning of March 21, 2005, President Bush signed S. 686 into law (Public Law 109-3).
Prior to the passage of S. 686 into law, an Emergency Petition for Temporary Injunction and Petition for a Writ of Habeus Corpus were filed on March 18 in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida. On the same day, these petitions were denied by a judge finding in part that the federal district court lacked jurisdiction in the matter and that there was “not a substantial likelihood” of success based on federal constitutional claims. The decision was immediately appealed to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit located in Atlanta, GA.
On March 21, 2005, following the passage of S. 686, the Court of Appeals issued an order overturning the decision and sending the case back to the district court. The parents of Terri would be permitted to “raise any claim or claims they wished to pursue under the special legislation signed into law by President Bush earlier today¼” Although a request by her parents to temporarily restore “food, fluids, and medical treatment necessary to sustain her life” was denied, the appeals court said that in light of the new law the matter could be raised in the district court.
Also on March 21, 2005, another suit was filed in the Middle District of Florida to protect Terri Schiavo’s life. A motion was made for a temporary restraining order that would allow Ms. Schiavo to be transported to a hospital for treatment. A hearing on the motion was held the same day.
On March 22, 2005, the judge denied the motion for a temporary restraining order and this decision was immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. A revised version of the initial suit was also filed in district court.
On March 23, 2005, a three-judge panel on the court of appeals voted 2 to 1, to uphold the decision of the lower court not to grant a temporary restraining order to protect Terri Schiavo. A petition was then made to have the appeals court consider the case, en banc, before all 12 active judges of the court. According to procedure each of the 12 active judges voted on the matter. The vote was 10 to 2 to deny the request to reconsider the case before the full court.
The matter was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 24, Justice Kennedy refused to overturn the ruling by the appeals court.
On March 24, 2005, a second motion for a temporary restraining order and a second revised version of the suit were filed back in district court. A hearing was held on the new request for a temporary restraining order.
On March 25, 2005, a district court judge again denied the motion for a temporary restraining order and this decision was quickly appealed. A three-judge panel on the court of appeals also denied the request. Another brief was then quickly filed in appeals court asking for a reversal of the district court decision.
On March 29, 2005, the appeals court granted permission for an emergency petition to be filed asking for a rehearing of the case en banc and for consideration of emergency action to be taken for Ms. Schiavo. On that same day, however, the judges voted 9 to 2 to deny a rehearing en banc. One judge was unable to take part in the voting because he was recovering from a surgical procedure. The motion requesting emergency action to protect Terri Schiavo was also denied.
On March 30, 2005, after a further appeal to the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy again denied a request to overturn the actions of the lower courts.
Terri Schiavo Dies
On Thursday, March 31, 2005, Terri Schindler Schiavo died as the result of court-ordered starvation and dehydration.
What happened to Terri Schiavo is tragic.
Cardinal William Keeler, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement mourning Terri Schiavo’s tragic death. The Cardinal cited the teaching of Pope John Paul II that “'the administration of food and water, even when provided for artificial means,’ should be considered 'morally obligatory’ as long as it provides nourishment and alleviates suffering for such patients.” The Cardinal went on to state, “Ours is a culture in which human life is increasingly devalued and violated, especially where that life is most weak and fragile.” He concluded, “May the soul of Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo rest in the peace and mercy of God. And may God have mercy on our society which failed to protect this innocent human life.”