NEITHER CONGRESS nor President Bush acquitted themselves well last weekend in enacting a law to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo. But in the days that have followed, one institution of American government has distinguished itself in its handling of the matter: the federal courts.
The new law put the courts in an impossible position. It gave the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida jurisdiction to hear any federal claims brought by Mrs. Schiavo's parents, and it instructed that it do so without deference to the previous state court adjudication. It thereby sent an unmistakable message that the legislature wanted the federal courts to order Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted and her life prolonged. But if Congress dumped Mrs. Schiavo's tragedy into federal court, it did not change the substantive law that governs it there. And there is no serious question under federal law concerning the state court's determination that Mrs. Shiavo was entitled to refuse artificial life support and would not have chosen to live in a "persistent vegetative state." In short, Congress leaned on the courts to consider a case that had little merit and to take a step within that case that the law would not support easily. To their credit, up and down the appellate ladder, the courts refused.
We usually avoid harping on the partisan identifications of judges, but it is worth noting that this refusal was quite apolitical. Judge James D. Whittemore, the district court judge who twice this week courageously declined to order the feeding tube reinserted, was appointed by President Bill Clinton. Notwithstanding the jurisdiction Congress created for his court, he rightly ruled that Mrs. Schiavo's parents were still unlikely to prevail on the merits of any federal claim -- and were therefore not entitled to an injunction. The two members of the appeals court panel who affirmed his judgment Wednesday were appointed by presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush. The full appeals court, which is ideologically diverse, declined to intervene, with only two judges openly dissenting. The Supreme Court likewise stood aside.
The message is a blunt and welcome rejection of a crude maneuver by Congress. While judges have a duty to interpret and apply the law as Congress writes it, they also have a duty to stand up to politicians when the law so requires. Perhaps the only happy outcome of this most unhappy case is that the federal judiciary did not let itself become an instrument of political manipulation.