TAMPA, Fla. - Armed with a new law rushed through Congress over the weekend, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents pleaded with a federal judge yesterday to order that the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube be reinserted. But the judge appeared cool to the argument.
U.S. District Judge James Whittemore did not immediately issue a decision after the two-hour hearing and gave no indication when he might act on the request.
The hearing came three days after the feeding tube was removed. Doctors have said Schiavo, 41, could live for one to two weeks without the tube.
The courtroom showdown, the most recent in what has become a legal cliffhanger captivating the nation, followed an extraordinary political fight over the weekend that consumed both chambers of Congress and prompted the president to rush back to the White House.
Congress passed a law that allowed Schiavo's parents to argue their case before a federal court, bringing the legal battle to Whittemore's Tampa courtroom.
"We are rushed and we are somewhat desperate," the parents' attorney, David Gibbs III, told the judge. "Terri may die as I speak." Gibbs argued that forcing Schiavo to die by starvation and dehydration would be "a mortal sin" under her Roman Catholic beliefs.
"It is a complete violation to her rights and to her religious liberty to force her in a position of refusing nutrition," he said.
But the judge told Gibbs that he was not sold on the argument. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that you have a substantial likelihood" of the lawsuit succeeding, said Whittemore, a Republican nominated to the federal bench by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1999. That is the usual threshold for the issuance of a temporary order.
'Every possible issue'
George Felos, representing husband Michael Schiavo, told Whittemore that the case has been aired thoroughly in state courts and that forcing the severely brain-damaged woman to endure another reinsertion of the tube would violate her civil rights.
"Every possible issue has been raised and reraised, litigated and relitigated," Felos said. "It's the elongation of these proceedings that have violated Mrs. Schiavo's due process rights."
Felos praised Whittemore's careful deliberation as political pressure mounts for the tube to be reinserted.
"Yes, life is sacred," Felos said. "So is liberty, particularly in this country."
Terri Schiavo's father, Bob Schindler, who had been upbeat about the prospects of his daughter remaining alive, grimly left the courthouse as friends crowded near for support.
Schiavo's feeding tube was removed at 1:45 p.m. Friday, the third time it has been disconnected. On both previous occasions, the tube was reinserted by court order.
Michael Schiavo contends that he is carrying out his wife's wishes not to be kept alive artificially. He said he was outraged that lawmakers and the president were intervening in the bitter right-to-die battle. He has fought for years with his wife's parents over whether she should be allowed to die or be kept alive through the feeding tube.
"This is a sad day for Terri. But I'll tell you what: It's also a sad day for everyone in this country, because the United States government is going to come in and trample all over your personal family matters," he told ABC's Good Morning America.
The Schindlers' lawsuit alleges a series of rights violations, including that Schiavo's religious beliefs were being infringed upon, that the removal of the feeding tube violated her rights and that she was not provided an independent attorney to represent her interests.
A vote of conscience
The hearing came less than 24 hours after Congress passed legislation sending the case to federal court. President Bush signed the bill early yesterday, less than an hour after the House voted in an emergency session.
It was obvious from the debate on the House floor Sunday night, which lasted more than three hours, that lawmakers were wrestling with what to do. Ultimately, the vote was 203-58, with 47 Democrats voting yes and five Republicans voting no.
Seven of Maryland's eight House members voted on the bill. Democratic Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen voted against the bill. The state's two Republican House members, Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest, voted for it.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, has pneumonia and is under a doctor's order to stay home this week and so did not vote, a spokeswoman said. In a statement, Ruppersberger said he opposed the bill.
Two Maryland Democrats, Reps. Albert R. Wynn and Elijah E. Cummings, voted in favor of the legislation. Both said yesterday that their political ideology was secondary to their desire to offer Terri Schiavo another legal outlet.
Wynn, who represents Prince George's County, said the case never should have come before Congress in the first place. But once he was asked to vote on it, Wynn said, the fact that Schiavo's parents and siblings are willing to care for her led him to conclude there was no reason to disconnect her feeding tube.
"I don't think it was a partisan issue. I think some people, some Democrats, mistakenly tried to treat it as a partisan issue, and I think they learned - probably to their surprise - that people did not view it as that," Wynn said. "This was not a party call, this was primarily a question of conscience."
Cummings said he wanted Bob and Mary Schindler to have one last shot at a solution in court.
"If I had to err, I'd rather err on the side of life as opposed to death," he said. "I had to put politics aside, because if I got caught up in politics, I wouldn't have voted the way I did."
Cummings, a lawyer who represents Baltimore and is considering a run for the U.S. Senate, said his experience with death penalty cases influenced his decision.
"There are so many people who work very hard to make sure that people who are on death row are given every single remedy before they are executed," he said. "And these are people who have murdered folks."
Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, ran the debate for his party, in the absence of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Late last week, House and Senate committees announced plans to hold hearings on the Schiavo case and the larger question of how to care for patients in similar circumstances. The House Government Reform Committee subpoenaed Terri Schiavo; the Senate panel simply invited her to attend, though both actions were intended to stop the removal of the feeding tube.
Spokesmen for the committees said yesterday that hearings are still planned, though it's not yet clear whether Schiavo or anyone else involved in her case will be featured.
'A life or death matter'
Bush applauded the legislative maneuver by Congress to get the case before a federal court.
"Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together last night to give Terri Schiavo's parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life," Bush said at an Arizona event on Social Security. "This is a complex case with serious issues, but in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life."
Outside the hospice where his daughter entered her fourth day without food or water, Bob Schindler told reporters, "I'm numb, I'm just totally numb. This whole thing, it's hard to believe it."
About two dozen activists outside the hospice were subdued but hopeful after learning that Whittemore did not issue an immediate ruling. Some heckled Felos as he spoke with the news media.
"This is a life or death matter right now as I speak to you," said Nancy Kramer, 50.
Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped briefly because of a possible potassium imbalance brought on by an eating disorder. She can breathe on her own, but has relied on the feeding tube to keep her alive.
Court-appointed doctors say she is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. Her husband says she would not want to be kept alive in that condition, but her parents insist that she could recover with treatment.
Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.
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