Schiavo issue a partisan mess

Congressional action made a mockery of federalism and the separation of powers.

The case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman at the center of a legal and political battle in Florida, has offered the country a heart-wrenching glimpse into the anguish of end-of-life care decisions. Florida courts have struggled for more than a decade to sort out the wishes of Schiavo from those of her husband and parents.

Schiavo’s case is now going before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, thanks to a bill passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, giving members of the Schiavo family recourse to the federal courts. That law is only one of many signs Schiavo’s plight has become a political cause Republicans (and even some Democrats) have been all too willing to embrace.

Earlier this week, congressional Democrats released a one-page memo they say was circulated among Senate Republicans. The memo highlighted the political benefits of supporting a cause that has long been a favorite of Christian conservatives.

That line of thought captures the mood that seems to have taken hold among congressional Republicans during the last few weeks. The Schiavo case is hardly new. Twice before, Florida courts have sided with Schiavo’s husband and ordered her feeding tube to be removed, only to later reverse themselves. The last-minute maneuverings of Republican leaders in Congress, including an extraordinary congressional session Sunday, largely reflect a late surge of letters and calls urging federal intervention.

The law that emerged from Congress tossed a slew of constitutional principles – including many that Republicans have trumpeted for years – out the window. In granting the federal judiciary access to a case already fully decided by the state courts, the law makes a mockery of federalism and the separation of powers.

The Schiavo case will not be the last to require difficult end-of-life decisions from the courts. If Congress is concerned about the judiciary’s handling of such cases, as the Schiavo law suggests, it should give thoughtful consideration to measures that apply to more than one person.

An 11th-hour bill passed with both eyes on the next election is no way to tackle an issue as challenging as this.