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Legal options waning in Schiavo case

Sun National Staff

With their daughter near death, the parents of Terri Schiavo saw their legal options to prolong her life all but disappear yesterday as the U.S. Supreme Court refused to order that her feeding tube be reinserted and a Florida judge blocked an effort by state officials to take the severely brain-damaged woman into protective custody.

Refusing to give up, Schiavo's parents again asked a federal judge in Tampa, Fla., to intervene. With their supporters, they also looked to the slim chance that Gov. Jeb Bush would ignore court rulings and use his executive powers to have her feeding tube replaced.

Both possibilities were considered long shots. Bush told a Florida news service that his legal powers "are not as expansive as people would like them to be." And U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore, who heard the parents' renewed plea last night but did not immediately issue a ruling, had refused two days earlier to order that the feeding tube be reinserted.

Yesterday's developments appeared to signal that an end was near in the seven-year legal battle between Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and her husband, Michael Schiavo, who has maintained that his wife would want to die without further medical intervention.

An attorney for Michael Schiavo said the Schindlers should try, at the start of Easter weekend, to accept their daughter's imminent death.

"It should become obvious to everyone and every observer that the entire judicial system of the United States, the state courts in the state of Florida, the entire federal judiciary, has said this case must end, this case is over," attorney George Felos said in Clearwater, Fla.

"Mrs. Schiavo's legal rights have been ruled on again and again and again. The courts have consistently found that she did not want to remain alive artificially," Felos said. "Her wishes should be carried out. And in that spirit, I hope that the parents do not keep pursuing fruitless legal options to the end. I think their time would be better served in reflection."

Time running short

Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was disconnected a week ago, and doctors have said that she would probably live for one to two weeks.

With time running short, supporters blasted the court rulings that continued to go against her parents' position and pushed hard for a last-minute intervention by the governor.

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, compared the effort to prolong Schiavo's life to civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s, saying that no one would doubt a governor's decision to step in if the situation involved black residents denied the right to vote or a seat at a lunch counter.

"A citizen of your state is being brutally murdered. You need to intervene on her behalf, Governor Bush," Mahoney said in a direct appeal.

Other Christian conservatives held protest signs yesterday outside the governor's offices in Tallahassee, and his phone lines were flooded with calls from across the country about the case.

The governor made no public appearances yesterday, and it was unclear whether he had consulted with his brother, President Bush, who was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

A White House spokeswoman said yesterday in Texas that President Bush was "saddened" by the latest court rulings but did not say whether the brothers had talked. A day earlier, the president told reporters at a news conference that he had not discussed any legal steps or strategies on the Schiavo case with his brother.

Strong efforts, opinions

This week's extraordinary legal and political effort to protect Schiavo began with President Bush racing from Texas to Washington to sign into law a measure crafted by Republican leaders in Congress that permitted the federal courts to review Schiavo's case.

But the effort had little effect on the case - the federal courts over the past two days have rejected her parents' pleas to have Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted - and it might have caused lasting backlash for Republicans.

Public opinion polls all week have shown that a large majority of Americans disapproved of congressional leaders and the president inserting themselves into the case. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released yesterday showed that President Bush's job approval rating had dropped from 52 percent over the weekend to 45 percent at the end of the week. It was not clear, though, whether the Schiavo case was driving the numbers or if other news might be contributing, such as rising gas prices or a dip in the economy.

The Supreme Court

The focus returned to Florida after the U.S. Supreme Court early yesterday refused the Schindlers' emergency request to restore their daughter's feeding tube. The decision was not a surprise. It was at least the fourth time the high court has refused to enter the years-long legal fight, and the justices routinely defer to state courts on questions of family law.

In a one-sentence notice issued about 10:30 a.m., the court said the issue had been presented to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and referred by him to the full court. Following the court's usual practice, the notice gave no reason for the decision or any breakdown of the justices' vote.

GOP leaders in Congress blasted the court's refusal to intervene. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said it was a "sad day for her loving family and for their innocent and voiceless daughter."

Another defeat

A few hours after the Supreme Court issued its decision, Schiavo's parents were handed another legal defeat when a state judge refused a request by Florida authorities to hear new medical evidence and to allow the state to take protective custody.

Judge George W. Greer, who sits on the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court and who has presided over the Schiavo litigation for years, rejected new claims in an affidavit from a neurologist with ties to conservative Christian groups that the 41-year-old Schiavo might not be in a "permanent vegetative state," as long thought, but in a state of "minimal consciousness."

The state immediately appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which last night upheld Greer's decision.

The Schindlers, meanwhile, raised the same claim in their return to U.S. District Court in Tampa, where they again asked Whittemore to grant an emergency request to have their daughter's feeding tube reinserted. Whittemore had refused the same request two days ago, a decision upheld in the appellate courts.

"The significance of not being [in a permanent vegetative state] could shatter the basis for removal of life support," the Schindlers claimed in legal filings.

'Benefit of every doubt'

For years, though, the evidence - and rulings - have found differently. Dr. Peter Bambakidis, an Ohio neurologist appointed by the Florida courts in 2002 to independently examine and evaluate Schiavo, told the court that he looked for signs of minimal consciousness and found none.

"You want to give the patient the benefit of every doubt that you possibly can in a situation like this," Bambakidis reported to the court. But, he said, "when you look at all of the data and the results of the examinations, and my examination, certainly a preponderance of the evidence supports that she's, in fact, in a persistent vegetative state."

Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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