News & Politics

Bush Saddles Up for Terri Schiavo


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Leave it to Tom Delay to take slime-ball politics, cast them as a Christian moral imperative, and give them the sanctity of law. That’s exactly what the House majority leader did in engineering a law that allows the parents of severely brain-damaged Terri Schiavo to ask a federal judge who could order her feeding tube reinserted.

Today’s vote in the House on the Schiavo case was a great victory for Delay, who has championed the cause, and it thrusts the majority leader forward as the true leader of the House. Dennis Hastert is window-dressing by comparison.

The vote was also a major victory for the Christian right, which once again has managed to set a precedent for the federal government intruding in the most personal matters. And it is a huge defeat for the libertarian elements of the Bush coalition, who oppose more federal control over American lives.

At a time when legislators of both parties are debating the merits of a constitutional amendment on marriage that seeks to make sacrosanct heterosexual vows, a huge majority in Congress (203-58 in the House early this morning) has voted to re-interpret those marriage vows, by denying the right of Schiavo’s husband, the next of kin, to arrange her dignified death. Last week, he had her feeding tube removed, after a years-long legal battle in which 10 Florida courts sided with him. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals of those rulings.

Following a brief heart stoppage 15 years ago, Schiavo lives in a persistent vegetative state—just how vegetative is a matter of debate. Bringing it before a federal court promises only more delay and most of all, a chance for President George Bush to play politics, giving thanks to his Christian right allies and demonstrating one more time just how much they matter to him.

The speed with which Bush rushed from his Texas ranch back to the White House to sign the legislation stands in sharp contrast to his lollygagging about on the ranch during the month of August 2001, even as warnings mounted about an impending attack from Osama bin Laden. The next month, when the World Trade Center towers were hit and thousands of people killed, Bush spent most of the day of wandering around the country before he could return to Washington to run the country. But for Schiavo, he saddles up and rides. This is the president who rails against so-called activist judges, but he’s clearly hoping he’ll find one now.

“This is a sad day for Terri,” Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, told ABC’s Good Morning America earlier today. “But I’ll tell you what: it’s also is 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.”

The Schiavo law creates a constitutional quandary. It smacks of a bill of attainder, specifically outlawed in the U.S. Constitution, and defined as “a legislative act that imposes any punishment on a named or implied individual or group without a trial. . . .”

Here are three interpretations of what this means, taken from

“The Bill of Attainder Clause was intended not as a narrow, technical (and therefore soon to be outmoded) prohibition, but rather as an implementation of the separation of powers, a general safeguard against legislative exercise of the judicial function or more simply—trial by legislature.” U.S. v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 440 (1965).

“These clauses of the Constitution are not of the broad, general nature of the Due Process Clause, but refer to rather precise legal terms which had a meaning under English law at the time the Constitution was adopted. A bill of attainder was a legislative act that singled out one or more persons and imposed punishment on them, without benefit of trial. Such actions were regarded as odious by the framers of the Constitution because it was the traditional role of a court, judging an individual case, to impose punishment.” William H. Rehnquist, the Supreme Court, page 166.

“Bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligations of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation. . . . The sober people of America are weary of the fluctuating policy which has directed the public councils. They have seen with regret and indignation that sudden changes and legislative interferences, in cases affecting personal rights, become jobs in the hands of enterprising and influential speculators, and snares to the more-industrious and less-informed part of the community.” James Madison, Federalist Number 44, 1788

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2005

Archive Highlights