Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Vox punditi

The editors speak on the Schiavo case.

The New York Times has two editorials.

  • A Blow to the Rule of Law:

    …Republicans have traditionally championed respect for the delicate balance the founders created. But in the Schiavo case, and in the battle to stop the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.

  • Congress’s Midnight Frenzy:

    The sight of Congress and President Bush intruding into the sufferings of the Schiavo family was appalling. Washington had years to properly consider the agonizing dilemmas that cases like this one raise for uncounted, less publicized American families. But the Republican leadership did nothing until the issue ripened to a maximum moment for simplistic political exploitation.

    Most Americans appreciate the complicated and sensitive concerns at stake here far better than the politicians. Whatever the range of opinion on the underlying issue, polls show that the public recoiled at the sight of elected officials racing to make hay of this family’s private pain. Those findings only underline the hubris of the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, and the other G.O.P. leaders. Their egregious pandering was directed not at the bulk of the populace, but at their base vote among the evangelical and fundamentalist conservatives who have been demanding greater deference since working to deliver Republican victories last year.

    The political timidity of potential opponents was woeful. No one dared even demand debate in the Senate. In the House, many opponents seemed simply to prefer to stay away. Arguments against the bill were led by Florida Democrats, who had the most reason to be offended by Congress’s crude overriding of state government.

    Sanctimonious rhetoric rang out about the value of each individual life even as a strategy memo was reported circulating among G.O.P. lawmakers cynically relishing the points to be scored with the right-to-life political machine in next year’s elections. The rush to save Terri Schiavo was mixed with the urge to get rid of Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who faces re-election next year.

    The Miami Herald:

    Congress’s intervention in the Terri Schiavo case is an extraordinary and probably unconstitutional intrusion into a personal family matter that traditionally has been the province of state courts. Simply put, Congress and the president didn’t like the outcome of a case that already had been fully vetted in state court. So they challenged the case in federal court, alleging a violation of Ms. Schiavo’s civil rights.


    Congress’ action is disturbing in many ways. We direct attention to just two areas of serious concern — the government’s incursion into a personal family matter and its possible violation of the U.S. Constitution.

    Anyone even superficially aware of the Schiavo case knows that it involves a family’s most difficult decision: When to terminate medical support to a loved one who cannot sustain life on their own. Today, science and medicine have advanced so much that people no longer simply get sick and die. But for most, the decision to stop or continue life-sustaining support is made without public fanfare by a surviving spouse, child, parent or relative. In fact, since Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed Friday, hundreds of Floridians have been unhooked from ventilators, respirators and life-saving devices without one word from Congress.


    No one in the congressional majority has directly observed Ms. Schiavo or listened to the testimony of experts. On its face, Congress’ decision seems to violate a basic division of our governing structure, which assigns certain duties to the state and others to the federal government. The state court, not Congress, is empowered to hear family and probate matters. Yet Congress has passed a law, applicable to one person, without having considered the factual evidence on which the courts’ decisions were based.

    For Congress to intrude so wantonly in a family dispute is astonishing. For Congress to substitute its judgment — unvarnished by the evidence and facts of the case — for that of Florida’s courts is wrong.

    The Minneapolis Star Tribune:

    Oh, for the days when people just died. When a loved one who could no longer take soup from a spoon was known to have finished living. In those days, grieving families could quarrel with no one but fate. Heeding the sad fact that nothing can restore consciousness to a badly damaged brain, they studied the art of acceptance.

    The world has since changed utterly, as the strange political kidnapping of Terri Schiavo makes plain. Perhaps the only gladness to be gleaned from this mad story is that the hostage herself is not really around to witness her exploitation. But Americans should be embarrassed on her behalf to see Washington’s right-wing radicals seize this permanently unconscious woman for a totalitarian fibfest.

    Totalitarian? What else can we call a government that elbows its way to a deathbed to dictate whether or not its occupant shall be allowed to die naturally? Where is the conservatism in insisting that a woman be interminably fed through a stomach tube — despite her expressed wishes to the contrary? And how can America’s chief champions of “the sanctity of marriage” justify their brazen intrusion into the personal lives of Terri Schiavo and husband Michael?


    And so it is that House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, has seen fit to call Michael Schiavo’s attempt to honor his wife’s wishes “an act of medical terrorism” and of “homicide” — a characterization so vile it may qualify as slander. President Bush was so determined to “save Terri” that he winged his way back from vacation to sign a law tossing her destiny into the federal courts.

    It’s a silly obstructionist game, and if American liberty means anything, it will soon end. Federal court is the wrong place for reviewing state policy, and in any case this controversy raises no unresolved matter. But forget protocol: Thanks to Washington’s bosses, the private business of a Florida man and his vegetative wife is headed for a trip through the federal court system. For Terri and Michael Schiavo, it’s likely to be a victory tour: In ruling after ruling, the nation’s courts have emphasized that individuals, not government, should make decisions about personal medical matters. How can the champions of “small government” — the very authors of this vulgar, tyrannical escapade — possibly disagree?

    The St. Petersburg Times:

    To justify federal intervention in the private tragedy of the Schiavo family, the White House has repeatedly extolled the president’s belief that he should “err on the side of life.” That is a contemptible hypocrisy.

    On June 23, 2000, while still governor of Texas, George W. Bush allowed the execution of Gary Graham, a man whose claim to innocence was so strong that five members of his own, notoriously sanguinary parole board had argued to spare Graham’s life. So had four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Graham’s murder conviction depended entirely on his identification by a stranger who said she had seen him briefly through a car windshield from more than 30 feet away. Two eyewitnesses who had been closer to the shooting said later that Graham wasn’t the killer, but they had never been interviewed by his court-appointed counsel and were not called to testify at his trial.

    Graham was 17 when arrested, making him one of the last juvenile offenders to be executed anywhere on this planet. The senior warden of Huntsville prison at the time wrote later that it was the worst execution he had commanded; that Graham “was extremely angry, and struggled until he was fully strapped down.”

    In washing his hands of Graham’s innocence, Bush rationalized that Graham had committed other crimes. Indeed he had, and admitted them. But they did not justify his execution, given the shaky facts and the inherent unreliability of eyewitness identification. On that occasion, if not others, the policy of George W. Bush was to err on the side of death.

    The Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

    Haste often causes trouble. The congressional rush to throw itself into the Terri Schiavo case will lead to new difficulties in numerous situations.

    Having spent decades unable to create a national health care system like those of other advanced nations, Congress suddenly took up one person’s health care in an extraordinary Sunday session. The legislative and executive branches of government wanted so badly to intervene that they created a special, new jurisdiction for a federal court. Unavoidably, the measure’s passage comes dangerously close to expressing a wish for specific judicial action.


    Although the new law narrowly targets the Schiavo case, many backers indeed hope to create a general right for interventions. They would like nothing better than to see authorities able to force heroic medical interventions in any case. The aim would be to reverse the valuable progress society has made toward empowering individual and family decisions about the end of life.

    We are certain that a Republican memo, given to The Washington Post and ABC News, made an astute judgment when it informed party lawmakers that intervening in the Schiavo case is “a great political issue.” That makes it all the more impressive that the Eastside’s new Republican member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, voted against the ill-advised law, one of only five GOP House members to do so.

    For most members, though, politics and a desire to play on voters’ sympathies and ideologies dictated a rush to judgment. Now, America will have to sort out the consequences.

    The Washington Post:

    The prospect of a disabled person slowly dying by virtue of a court order issued over the strenuous objections of her parents is enough to trouble even the most ardent advocate of the “right to die.” So Congress’s lightning-fast passage of special legislation to force the federal courts to review Terri Schiavo’s case might make a certain intuitive sense. Certainly one can feel only sympathy for the relatives torn apart by this case. But Congress has an obligation to rise above sympathy and intuition. Its precipitous action this weekend, supported by President Bush, was damaging and unprincipled.


    The U.S. legal system is not supposed to be one of legislative “do-overs” in which Congress, if it doesn’t like the outcome in a high-profile case, changes the rules on behalf of politically favored parties. It is supposed to be a system where litigants know the rules in advance and understand the jurisdictional boundaries of the courts that decide their cases. Lawmakers may believe that they acted this weekend to save a life, but they also took a step that diminishes the rule of law.

    The Boston Globe:

    The US Congress has no place at Terri Schiavo’s bedside. Neither does the president of the United States.


    ABC News and The Washington Post reported that a memo distributed to senators by Republican leaders over the weekend called the Schiavo case a “great political issue,” adding that “the prolife base will be excited” by the debate. The memo also noted the vulnerability of Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who refused to support the effort to save Terri.

    Using what is left of Schiavo’s life to try to win votes is unconscionable, for it prolongs what medical experts have deemed hopeless. Turning her plight into an ideological circus with right-to-life protesters facing off against the right-to-die faction outside a hospice facility robs her of dignity and privacy — which all human beings deserve, whether they are aware of what is happening or not.

    Deciding to remove life support from someone in Schiavo’s condition is an agonizing choice best made in consultation with doctors and clergy and one’s own conscience. It is a decision that demands quiet thought, not the roar of demagogues framing sound bites.

    Finally, the incomparable Pat Oliphant:

    If there are any editorials out there that speak in favor of what the Congress and Bush did in this matter, I’d like to hear about them.