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Schiavo Case: Supreme Court

March 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: We look at the Terri Schiavo developments from two angles tonight. First, the legal, with Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Jan, there were two important court decisions today. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court. What was the issue before the court?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, late last night Terri Schiavo’s parents made a highly emotional appeal to the justices, urging them to step in and save their daughter’s life. Their daughter, as they said in the court papers, whom they love more than life itself. They said she was facing imminent death if the court did not step in and order a lower state court decision blocked that had taken her feeding tube away.

And they said that a new law that Congress passed just on Monday to open the doors of the federal courthouse to Bob and Mary Schindler, that Congress clearly intended in that new law for her feeding tube to be reinserted. Lower courts that didn’t see it that way were wrong; they were clearly ignoring the wishes of Congress.

And they said this court, the Supreme Court, must step in. They then raised a host of constitutional issues, arguing that Terri Schiavo’s rights to a fair hearing, her rights to practice her religious beliefs, that those also were being violated.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. The case by the parents, was it accompanied by a response from the husband?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes. Early this morning lawyers for the husband filed a response in which they said Terri Schiavo had gotten a full and fair hearing, more than eight years of litigation in this case, countless appeals, countless trips up to the Supreme Court, and, of course, this was the fifth time that the court had been asked to take a look at this case.

JIM LEHRER: And the court ruled. What did it…what did it decide?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Just after 10 o’clock this morning the Supreme Court in a terse, one-sentence order, with no explanation said that it would not get involved in this case.

JIM LEHRER: How do we read that? Is that a unanimous decision of some kind? What does that mean?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Typically when the court is asked to decide a case, it doesn’t explain why it’s not going to get involved. Sometimes one justice or two justices may write a separate dissent if they think the court should have gotten involved.

Just because we don’t have that, I don’t think we should assume that all the Justices were united, but it is notable that there were no dissents today, and certainly the order was just flatly denied, the parents’ request.

JIM LEHRER: In general term, Jan, is this denial consistent with prior decisions, not only in this case, but in similar cases?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This marks the fifth time that the court has been asked to get solved here. And each time the Supreme Court has denied any request to get involved in Terri Schiavo’s case.

And, Jim, I have to tell you, as the case proceeded this week, the chances that Terri Schiavo’s parents were going to get relief got smaller and smaller. Everyone I talked to on both sides of the issue all week said their best hope was, first, before the federal trial judge, they went to him first thing on Monday morning. He said no.

Then they went to the federal appeals court the next day on Tuesday. The appeals court said no; they would not order the tube reinserted. They asked the full federal appeals court to take a look at it. It said no.

Each time, with each court, as they got higher and higher up, the chances got slimmer and slimmer until they got the denial this morning from the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: The other big decision of the day was back in Florida. A state court judge who ruled before, he ruled again today, same way he had before. Tell us about that.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes, Gov. Jeb Bush had sought custody, actual custody by the Department of Children and Families of Terri Schiavo, saying that there was new evidence of neglect, new evidence that she was minimally conscious. The judge did not agree with that.

He said this was an effort to circumvent his earlier decisions. And so he turned down that request. Now, the governor said he had expected that and he was prepared and, in fact, has filed an appeal. That will go up through the state court system at this point.

JIM LEHRER: And is that where it…are there any other avenues besides that still open?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes. The parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, tonight are going to go back to the federal court judge in Tampa who took up this case on Monday, and they’re asking him again to step in and order the feeding tube reinserted. They’ve filed a slightly different lawsuit with slightly different constitutional arguments.

They’ve added, for example, an Eighth Amendment claim that denying her food and water is cruel and unusual punishment, but again, everyone that I spoke with this afternoon about this, says their best shot was their first one, and that raising this issue at this point, after it’s already gone all the way up the federal court system, gotten a denial this morning from the U.S. Supreme Court, that their chances are exceedingly, exceedingly slim.

JIM LEHRER: But just as a matter of course, does it have to go…it is possible this could go all the way back up to the Supreme Court on a different issue?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes, yes. On this point today, again tonight and the legal maneuvering is going on. I expect it will go on through the night, into tomorrow; they’re back again in federal court saying, please take a look at this again. We have a few more arguments.

So that will give them, if he says no, they can then go back to the federal appeals court, back to the Supreme Court. But I would expect that would move very quickly. These courts are very familiar with these issues at this point. And again, the people that I spoke with today said that the chances of getting a different result, a second time around were very slim. And that’s people on both sides of the issue.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Jan, thank you very much.