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Fighting for a Principle, for Free

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Times Staff Writer

For the final two weeks of Terri Schiavo’s life, Jon B. Eisenberg was part of her husband’s legal team. But he knew he wouldn’t walk away with a fee.

Instead, the California lawyer said, he spent $2,800 of his own money to travel to Washington when it looked as if the Supreme Court might agree to hear the case.

“Flight, hotels, food, cab, Alka-Seltzer, coffee -- it all came from my pocket,” said Eisenberg, an appellate attorney from Oakland. “As someone who believes in the Constitution, it was an obligation -- it was an honor.”

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Terri Schiavo died March 31 at age 41. Long before the court battle between her husband and her parents over whether to disconnect her feeding tube reached its headline-generating apex, many other people had stepped in to participate, including some who helped pay legal bills.

Bob and Mary Schindler, the retired Gulfport, Fla., couple who filed petitions, motions and appeals since 1998 to keep their brain-damaged daughter alive, couldn’t afford to pay for the legal work themselves.

“Litigation is very expensive. Mr. Schindler asked us for help after he had exhausted his own fund resources,” said Dana Cody, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Napa, Calif. The fund contributed about $350,000 over the last four years.

For at least a year and a half, whether Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube should be disconnected and the woman be allowed to die became a battleground in America’s culture wars, with lawyers and financial donors from conservative Christian, antiabortion and disability-rights organizations arrayed against attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and advocates of the right of individuals to choose their medical treatment.

“We’re a group that tries to maintain the sanctity of human life, and we think this case could set a dangerous precedent for those who have become disabled,” Cody said. “We want to prevent society from hastening the death of those it deems inconvenient.”

On the other side, the ACLU contributed the services of two Florida lawyers “because it was important to prevent a giant step backward to the legal and constitutional principles that we have in this country, that people have a right to refuse unwanted medical care,” said Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s ACLU.

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The organization was involved in the case since the autumn of 2003, when the Florida Legislature passed a law, later struck down as unconstitutional, that authorized Gov. Jeb Bush to order the feeding tube reinserted.

Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack Feb. 25, 1990, because of a potassium imbalance brought on by an eating disorder. The heart attack cut off oxygen to her brain, leaving her severely impaired. Although she could breathe on her own, she could not eat or drink.

Michael Schiavo, who said his wife would not have wanted to continue living by being fed through a tube, had the initial advantage financially. In 1992, he received $300,000 for himself and $750,000 for his wife in a malpractice lawsuit against one of her doctors.

The money for Terri Schiavo went into a trust fund. Michael Schiavo was able to draw on more than $350,000 of that for legal costs to petition a Florida court to order the feeding tube’s removal and to fend off challenges mounted by his in-laws.

His money to pay legal fees, though, ran out years ago, his lawyer said.

“No one, no attorney in Mrs. Schiavo’s case has been paid for work since July of 2002,” said George J. Felos, who represented Michael Schiavo since he submitted the original petition. “I don’t know if anyone has added up the hours, but it’s obviously enormous.”

Felos, from Dunedin, Fla., had earned a reputation in the state’s legal circles for his work in another case that established that the right to privacy in Florida’s constitution extended to removing a patient’s feeding tube if that was the patient’s wish. It was that case, Felos wrote later, that made him feel like a crusader, working for a cause he believed in. The struggle over Terri Schiavo’s fate pushed the 53-year-old Felos into the limelight -- and prompted death threats.

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Though he ultimately lost the case, David C. Gibbs III, 36, the third and last in a string of lawyers to represent the Schindlers, also developed a national profile as well as a first-name relationship with CNN’s talk-show host Larry King.

During the final, and unsuccessful, round of appeals in the federal courts, the American Center on Law and Justice, a nonprofit law firm founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, the Virginia evangelist, came to Gibbs’ assistance.

The center, which relies on donations to oppose abortion, human cloning and euthanasia, also represented U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican who was a chief sponsor of the legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last month to give the authority to the federal courts to review the Schiavo case.

All the work for the Schindlers was pro bono.

“We haven’t charged a dollar,” said Jay Sekulow, the center’s chief counsel. “I can’t even imagine how much it is worth -- hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The group, which sometimes styles itself as a conservative counterweight to the ACLU, became involved because “it is literally a life-and-death case,” Sekulow said. “Someone is being denied a fundamental right: the right to life.”

Larry Klayman, founder of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, said a similar end-of-life dispute involving his grandmother led him to volunteer to help Terri Schiavo’s parents.

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After Schiavo’s feeding tube was disconnected March 18, Klayman lobbied staffers for Gov. Bush, trying to persuade them that the Florida Constitution gave the governor the authority to restore Terri Schiavo’s food and water.

“With or without compensation, I would have been here,” Klayman said outside the hospice in Pinellas Park, where Terri Schiavo spent the final five years of her life.

After the Florida Legislature passed the short-lived Terri’s law, a Chicago law firm, Jenner & Block, joined with Felos to draft a challenge to its constitutionality.

When Congress rushed through emergency legislation last month to allow the Schindlers to petition the federal courts for a review of their daughter’s treatment, the firm again volunteered its services at no charge.

“During that period, we had five to six people working round the clock. I slept 20 hours in eight days,” said Thomas J. Perrelli, a partner in the firm’s Washington office.

Attorneys wrote briefs and hammered out the strategy to challenge the law’s constitutionality and counter the Schindlers’ final attempts to have the feeding tube reconnected, he said.

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“We became involved not to be part of a difficult struggle in a family, but once the government got involved, when the legislative and executive branch got involved to take the decision away from the courts,” Perrelli said. “Both the Florida statute and the federal statute were really attacks on the judiciary.”

Asked the value of the legal work contributed, Eisenberg said, “if Michael were paying, he’d be out of pocket 1 million bucks just for the [last] two weeks.”

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