CLEARWATER, Fla., Feb. 23 -- The administration of Gov. Jeb Bush, already forcefully rebuked by the Florida Supreme Court for trying to override judicial orders and block the removal of a brain-damaged woman's feeding tubes, launched itself back into the case Wednesday by asking for a delay to investigate abuse allegations.
The surprise request by Florida's Department of Children and Families to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo stirred an already emotional atmosphere. A woman broke with courtroom decorum and called out "Amen" when an attorney for Schiavo's parents, who are trying to stop her husband from removing the feeding tubes, announced in Pinellas County Circuit Court that the department has asked for a delay.
"We have been complaining and complaining and complaining that Terri has been abused, and it's fallen on deaf ears," Schiavo's father, Robert Schindler, said after the hearing.
The legal maneuver adds a new layer of complication to the seven-year case, which has drawn an eclectic mix of monks, antiabortion activists and conservative Christian activists to this town west of Tampa. George J. Felos, the lead attorney for Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, said the move "reeks of political arm-twisting."
"The governor and the legislature -- the politicians -- have tried to do an end run around the court system," Felos said. In the past few years, he said, "scores" of abuse allegations from anonymous tipsters have been proved untrue.
While the case is slogging through the courts, its political aspects have been omnipresent. It has been a hot topic among legislators in Tallahassee, and after Wednesday's hearing, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry said he and others are working with Florida lawmakers to speed passage of a law that would strip Schiavo's husband of his authority as guardian because he now lives with another woman.
In 2003, bioethicists and constitutional scholars criticized Bush (R) for pushing a law through the Florida legislature that gave him the right to stop Michael Schiavo from removing the feeding tubes that have kept his wife alive since she collapsed 15 years ago. The Florida Supreme Court said Bush "violated a cornerstone of American democracy." The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Bush.
On Wednesday, the governor told reporters that "I can assure you I will do whatever I can within the means, within the laws, of our state to protect this woman's life." A Bush spokesman said the governor, who appoints the head of the Children and Families Department, did not ask the agency to enter the case.
The agency's request was sealed, making it impossible to assess the move, said Elizabeth Foley, a Florida International University law professor who teaches bioethics.
"Who the heck knows?" she said. "The state has an unqualified interest in preserving life . . . but if it's the 'same ol', same ol', it does seem like the executive branch is trying to circumvent the judiciary."
Amid the uproar over the abuse investigation, the oft-delayed case was delayed again Wednesday to give Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who had already issued a one-day stay this week, until Friday to consider a request for an indefinite stay. Before the back-to-back delays, Schiavo's husband had said he would order doctors to remove her feeding tubes on Wednesday as soon as another stay expired.
Attorneys for the Schindlers have raised half a dozen legal issues that they say must be resolved before a decision about pulling the feeding tubes is made. Among them are arguments that Michael Schiavo should be removed as guardian, that Pope John Paul II's labeling of euthanasia as "a sin" should be weighed by the courts because Terri Schiavo was a practicing Catholic, and that new scientific developments suggest she might be "minimally conscious," rather than in a vegetative state.
Felos argued that the case has been resolved since an order allowing the feeding tubes' removal in 2000 and that the Schindlers' attorneys are concocting legal arguments merely to get more delays. Terri Schiavo's cerebral cortex, Felos said, is now "a giant black hole."
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.