In a Victory for Privacy Rights, Florida Judge Strikes Down Special Law Overriding Medical Decisions in Terri Schiavo Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
May 6, 2004 12:00 am

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CLEARWATER, FL – In a victory for privacy rights, a Pinellas circuit court judge today struck down a state law that reversed a series of court rulings and interfered with the medical decisions of a severely brain-damaged woman who, Florida courts found, did not wish to be kept alive artificially.

“”This thoughtful and careful opinion will be very important in the history of Florida because it is a strong affirmation of the privacy rights of the people of Florida and a strong rebuke to politicians who attempt to interfere in medical decisions that should be left to all of us and are simply not the business of politicians,”” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, which filed a brief challenging the constitutionality of the law on behalf of Michael Schiavo, Theresa “”Terri”” Schiavo’s husband of 18 years and her legal guardian.

In a 22-page decision issued earlier today, Judge W. Douglas Baird said the unprecedented actions of Florida lawmakers and Governor Jeb Bush ordering the reinsertion of feeding tubes that have sustained Schiavo for more than a decade interfere with the constitutional privacy rights of Floridians to choose or refuse medical treatment. Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state since she suffered cardiac arrest in 1990.

Judge Baird also ruled that the state’s interest in preserving life does not outweigh the right of an individual to forego life-sustaining measures. “”The Act, in every instance, ignores the existence of this right and authorizes the Governor to act according to his personal discretion,”” wrote Baird. “”By substituting the personal judgment of the Governor for that of the ‘patient,’ the Act deprives every individual ? of his or her constitutionally guaranteed right to the privacy of his or her own medical decisions.””

At issue is state law Ch. 2003-418, which gave the Governor the authority to issue a one-time “”stay”” to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration from a patient who – as of October 15, 2003 – had no written advance directive; was found by the court to be in a persistent vegetative state; had nutrition and hydration withheld; and had a family member who had challenged the withholding of nutrition and hydration. The Florida Legislature passed the bill on October 21, 2003. Governor Bush issued an Executive Order shortly after signing the bill into law. Later that same day, Schiavo was removed from her residence at a local hospice and brought to a hospital. Her nutrition and hydration tubes were then reinserted, without the consent of her husband and duly appointed guardian.

Baird found that the law was an unconstitutional intrusion on judicial authority because it reversed nearly six years of court litigation that ended with a final order on September 17, 2003 that ordered the removal of Schiavo’s life-prolonging feeding and hydration tubes.

Last year, before the political pressure mounted, Gov. Bush apparently also had faith in our judicial system, the ACLU’s Simon noted. On August 26, 2003, in a letter to Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer, Gov. Bush wrote: “”Our system of government has committed these decisions to the judicial branch, and we must respect that process.”” He went on to add: “”No one involved should be permitted to circumvent due process or the Court’s authority in order to achieve personal objectives in this case.”” Less than two months later, while the legislature was in special session, the governor reversed course and called upon the legislature to grant him the authority to step in and reverse the courts’ decisions.

The case is Michael Schiavo, as Guardian of the person of Theresa Maria Schiavo vs. Jeb Bush, et al., (No. 03008212C1-20). The legal team consists of: George J. Felos, of Felos & Felos, P.A. in Dunedin, Fla., Deborah A. Bushnell, also of Dunedin, Fla., ACLU of Florida Legal Director Randall Marshall, and ACLU of Florida cooperating attorneys Thomas J. Perrelli, Robert M. Portman and Nicole G. Berner of the Washington-based law firm of Jenner & Block LLC.

The ACLU brief is online at:

Today’s decision is available online at:

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