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Courage and Judicial Activism

This is Judge Stanley Birch’s stirring separate opinion in the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Atlanta) to reject the appeal of Terry Schiavo’s parents under the special statute Congress passed last Monday giving federal courts jurisdiction over that single case.

A popular epithet directed by some members of society, including some members of Congress, toward the judiciary involves the denunciation of “activist judges.” Generally, the definition of an “activist judge” is one who decides the outcome of a controversy before him according to personal conviction, even one sincerely held, as opposed to the dictates of the law as constrained by legal precedent and, ultimately, our Constitution.

In resolving the Schiavo controversy it is my judgment that, despite sincere and altruistic motivation, the legislative and executive branches of our government have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers’ blueprint for the governance of a free people — our Constitution. Since I have sworn, as have they, to uphold and defend that Covenant, I must respectfully concur in the denial of the request for rehearing en banc. I conclude that Pub. L.109-3 (“the Act”) is unconstitutional and, therefore, this court and the district court are without jurisdiction in this case under that special Act and should refuse to exercise any jurisdiction that we may otherwise have in this case.

And if you think this comes from a liberal jurist, you’re way wrong. Birch is from rural Georgia, was an Army lieutenant in Viet Nam from 1970-72 and was nominated to the federal bench by by George H.W. Bush on March 22, 1990. That’s a conservative bio if I ever heard one. And as Ed Brayton from Dispatches from the Culture Wars cogently points out

He voted to uphold the Florida law banning adoption by gay couples, a case the Supreme Court refused to hear a few months ago. In writing the opinion in that case, Judge Birch strongly criticized the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, the case that overturned state laws against sodomy. He wrote that he thought the law should be changed and was unwise, but he refused to allow his personal feelings to govern his judicial decisionmaking, saying bluntly in his ruling, “Any argument that the Florida Legislature was misguided in its decision is one of legislative policy, not constitutional law.” So when Judge Birch speaks about judicial restraint, he’s certainly worth listening to.

We need more judges like Stanley Birch, judges who have the courage to tell it like it is and not base decisions on political expediency.

Death With Dignity

The U.S. Congress this evening made a frantic, last-ditch effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive, passing measures that call for the federal courts to prevent the removal of feeding tubes from the brain-damaged woman in Florida. President George W. Bush applauded the move, saying the courts should rule “in favor of life.”

Well, let’s look at the real facts. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a rabid anti-abortion advocate, introduced a bill (S.539) dubbed the “Incapacitated Persons Legal Protection Act of 2005.” Supposedly under the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which provides that`No State . . . shall deprive any person of life . . . without due process of law,” the bill would deem any person (husband, wife, doctor, etc.) who is “authorized or directed by court order to withdraw or withhold food, fluids, or medical treatment” to be holding an incapacitated person in “custody” for purposes of federal court habeas corpus proceedings. In layman’s terms, this means that the constitutional protection against government custodial confinement — which is used to challenge state criminal convictions as unconstitutional — would now be extended to anyone who obtains a state court order allowing a loved one to die. Private citizens, not the state, are now being commanded to give up their personal autonomy by the fiction that their spouses (legal guardian in all other situations) become the government because a court ratifies one’s right to die.

Santorum’s bill reasons that:

In circumstances in which there is a contested judicial proceeding because of a dispute about the expressed previous wishes or best interests of a person presently incapable of making known a choice concerning treatment, food, and fluids the denial of which will result in death, [the Congress must] guarantee that the fundamental due process and equal protection rights of incapacitated persons are protected by ensuring the availability of collateral review through habeas corpus proceedings.

Bullshit. In Terry Schiavo’s case, where that poor woman has been in a persistent coma, without consciousness, for 15 years, the bill would take away from those who know her best the power to let her die and allow any third-party — not limited to her parents, but anyone — to use the courts to contest her right to die. This is not about due process, it’s about manufacturing a federal “right” out of thin air, just like Santorum piously claims the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade on abortion. The hypocrisy is simply astonishing. As Schiavo’s husband said on Nightline, will the government now force cancer patients to take chemo against their wishes? The policy and legal logic is the same, but the result is the Big Brother government that Republicans traditionally despise. Now they’re all for it, wanting to overturn 19 Florida court decisions, all of which confirmed that Terry Schiavo is brain dead, can never have any senses again, and should be allowed to be removed from artificial life support.

Bill Clinton famously declared that “the era of big government is over” in 1995. Not true. Now that the Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, after lambasting Clinton, they’re moving government ever more deeply into state, local and intensely personal affairs. Santorum, Dubya and the congressional Repubicans are the George Orwells of 2005, only 21 years after “1984.”

Update: When the House could not pass a bill acceptable to the Senate last night, it came up with a new strategy. To subpoena Terry Schiavo’s husband to testify before Congress in Washington, D.C. so that he would have to leave Florida when the order allowing disconnection of life support goes into effect this afternoon. Shameful.