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Martinez seeks federal intervention for Schiavo

The freshman senator and a representative file a bill as the court battle continues over her fate.

By WES ALLISON and CHRIS TISCH
Published March 9, 2005


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WASHINGTON - Wading into a political thicket that has confounded Florida's Legislature and its governor, U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez on Tuesday joined a fellow Florida congressman in filing a bill to let the federal courts review the Terri Schiavo case.

Martinez, R-Orlando, and U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Palm Bay, are asking the Republican leadership in their respective chambers to act quickly on the bill, before Schiavo's feeding tube is removed next Friday. But it was unclear whether that would be possible; aides said Democrats would likely insist on full hearings, which could delay the bill for weeks.

Schiavo suffered severe brain damage after collapsing 15 years ago. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, contends she would not want to be kept alive artificially, but she left no living will. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, contend she might get better.

While lawmakers filed bills, an attorney for the Schindlers was back in a Clearwater court Tuesday urging Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer to consider testimony from 33 doctors who think Schiavo can recover from her injuries. Most of the doctors contacted the Schindlers after hearing about the case through widespread media attention.

David Gibbs III, the Schindlers' attorney, said some of that testimony will indicate that Schiavo can learn to swallow. Some of the doctors also may testify that Schiavo is in a minimally conscious state and could recover.

Greer will consider the motion. The judge, however, denied a request from Schiavo's parents to have her fed by mouth after the feeding tube is removed.

Court hearings resume today when the state Department of Children and Families seeks to intervene to investigate allegations of abuse against Michael Schiavo. DCF asked Greer on Tuesday to bar the public from the hearing scheduled for this afternoon.

DCF attorney Keith Ganobsik would not tell reporters why the agency wants to close the hearing. Greer may consider DCF's request this morning.

George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo, said he thinks DCF's involvement has been prompted by the same political meddling that has fueled other efforts by lawmakers to keep Schiavo alive. He said any hearings with DCF in front of Greer need to be open to the public.

"This thing simply reeks of political intervention," Felos said, later adding: "The public needs to see these proceedings, especially in this case, to see the political arm-twisting that's going on."

The director of DCF has denied that political pressure led to the agency's motion to intervene.

The Schiavo case prompted Florida's other U.S. senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, to file his own bill to make simply worded living wills available at state driver's license offices. Nelson said he has asked for a legal review before deciding whether to support Martinez's bill.

"This is not about Terri Schiavo's right to die or right to be kept alive," said Martinez, a lawyer. "It is about ensuring that her rights have been protected throughout this process."

This is Martinez's first bill since taking office, and it mirrors Weldon's. They said it was written narrowly in hopes of avoiding a broader fight over such issues as abortion and physician-assisted suicide, and would apply only to people who meet four requirements: They must be legally incapacitated; there must be a state court ruling to withhold sustenance; there must be no written directive; and there must be a legal dispute, as in Schiavo's case.

A "party of standing" could ask a federal court to review the case, to ensure that the patient's rights of due process weren't violated. Martinez and Weldon said the same right is allowed in death penalty cases. "Her parents do not want to see her dying of starvation and thirst," Weldon, a physician, said on the House floor as he introduced the bill.

Nearly two years ago, the Florida Legislature passed Terri's Law, which gave Gov. Jeb Bush the power to reverse a court order to remove her feeding tube. The state Supreme Court struck down the law.

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 00:54:20]


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