Schindler Family  /  AP
Terri Schiavo, right, gets a kiss from her mother, Mary Schindler, in this Aug. 11, 2001, image taken a from videotape and released by the Schindler family.
updated 8/30/2004 3:05:24 PM ET 2004-08-30T19:05:24

The battle over Terri Schiavo has played out at times like a soap opera, but when the Florida Supreme Court hears arguments in the case Tuesday it will be deadly serious stuff.

The brain-damaged woman is at the center of one of the nation’s longest, most bitter right-to-die disputes, one that has pitted her husband against her parents.

The question before the court is whether the law that Gov. Jeb Bush signed in October to keep the 40-year-old Schiavo alive violates her constitutional right to privacy and the separation of powers between the branches of Florida’s government.

'A fight for dominance'
“It’s a fight for dominance between the governor’s office and the courts,” said Steven Gey, a law professor at Florida State University.

The court’s decision could ultimately determine whether Schiavo lives or dies.

It has been more than 14 years since Schiavo suffered brain damage when her heart stopped beating, a condition brought on by an eating disorder. She left no written instructions in the event she became incapacitated.

Schiavo can breathe on her own but relies on a feeding tube to live. Some medical experts have declared she is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery.

Her husband, Michael, has argued that she would not want to be kept alive in this way. But her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have disputed that and argued that she could someday regain some of her faculties.

A judge ruled that there was clear and convincing evidence that Schiavo would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially, and last October, Michael Schiavo withdrew the feeding tube.

Case will test governor's authority
But in a remarkable week of emotion and political activism by her parents’ supporters, Bush pushed “Terri’s Law” through the Legislature and forced the reinsertion of the tube. The law was narrowly drafted to give the governor authority to issue such an order.

Later, Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird ruled the law wrongly allowed Bush to intervene in a matter of personal privacy and was improperly used by the governor to override a court decision with which he did not agree. The tube is in place in the meantime.

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On Tuesday, she will remain in a Clearwater nursing home while lawyers 200 miles away argue over the law. This is the first time Florida’s Supreme Court has agreed to take up any aspect of the case. The court has no deadline for issuing its decision.

George Felos, Michael Schiavo’s attorney, has argued that what Bush has done amounts to force-feeding Terri Schiavo. In court filings, Felos has charged that the governor imposed his will on her, without regard to what she would have wanted.

In addition, Felos said the law violates the separation of powers because Bush used it to circumvent a properly issued court ruling reached after more than six years of litigation, scores of hearings and an appeals court review.

“At the end of the day, people have got to be allowed to refuse treatment and hasten their own deaths if that is what is their wish,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, which has joined with Michael Schiavo in suing the governor.

Many disputed facts
But attorney Ken Connor, who is representing Bush, countered that the law is an added layer of protection for the disabled in an unusual case where there is doubt about what the patient might have wanted.

In court papers, Connor argued that the judiciary is not the sole protector of the disabled and it is the governor’s obligation to assume such a role, too.

Connor said there are many disputed facts in the case. Among those issues that need to be examined, Connor said, is Michael Schiavo’s motivation in seeking to end his wife’s life, a process that did not begin until after the couple was awarded more than $1 million in a medical malpractice case.

Nationwide groups are weighing in on the constitutional fight.

Diane Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group for the severely disabled, said those who want to make it easier to end a disabled person’s life have dismantled needed protections in the court system.

“They want to misuse the right of privacy to supplant the right of due process so they can kill behind the closed doors of a hospital room or a nursing home room,” Coleman said. “We would compare this situation to a death penalty case where courts have dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s and still made a big mistake.”

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