BREAKING NEWS ~ House starts debate on Schiavo bill

[JURIST] House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner has risen in the US House of Representatives to begin an extraordinary Sunday night pre-Easter recess debate on S. 686, a bill [JURIST text] passed earlier this afternoon by the Senate [JURIST report] that would permit a federal judge to conduct a de novo review of Terri Schiavo's case at the behest of her parents to determine if the withholding of food, water or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life violates the US Constitution or any federal laws. The debate is scheduled to last for three hours with a vote expected just after midnight.

10:16 PM ET - Sensenbrenner said, in part:

While our Federalist structure reserves broad authority to States, America's federal courts have played a historic role in defending the constitutional rights of all Americans, including the disadvantaged, disabled, and dispossessed. Among the God- given gifts protected by the Constitution, no right is more sacred than the right to life.

The legislation we consider today will ensure that Terri Schiavo's constitutional right to life will be given the federal court review that her situation demands. Unlike the legislation passed by the Senate a day after House passage of H.R. 1332, the legislation received from the Senate today is not a private bill. Also, and of critical importance, S. 686 does not contain a provision that might have authorized a federal court to deny desperately needed nutritional support to Terri Schiavo during the pendency of her claim.

Unlike earlier Senate legislation, S. 686 also contains a bicameral commitment that Congress will examine the status of legal rights of incapacitated individuals who are unable to make decisions concerning the provision or withdrawal of life- sustaining treatment. Broad consideration of this issue is necessary to ensure that similarly situated individuals are accorded the equal protection under law that is both a fundamental constitutional right and an indispensable ingredient of justice.

It is important to note that this legislation also does not create a new cause of action. Rather, it merely provides de novo federal court review of 'alleged violation(s)' of Terri Schiavo's rights 'under the Constitution or laws of the United States.' Furthermore, S. 686, makes clear that 'Nothing in this Act shall be construed to create substantive rights not otherwise secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States or of the several States.'

In addition, the legislation does not reopen or direct the reopening of a final judgment - it merely ensures an opportunity for the review of any violations of Terri Schiavo's federal and constitutional rights in federal court. As a result, the legislation is clearly consistent with both the separation of powers envisioned by our Founders and the weight of judicial precedent on point. As the Supreme Court held in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farms, 'While legislatures usually act through laws of general applicability, that is by no means their only legitimate mode of action.'

Finally, S. 686 presents no problems regarding retrospective application. As the Supreme Court held in Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 'A statute does not operate 'retrospectively' merely because it is applied in a case arising from conduct antedating the statute's enactment.' Rather, the court must ask whether the new provision attaches new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment. S. 686 does not attach any new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment, it merely 'changes the tribunal that is to hear the case' by providing federal court jurisdiction to review alleged violations of Terri Schiavo's federal and constitutional rights.
Read Sensenbrenner's full floor statement.

 

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