Monday, April 18, 2005

Legal Aspects of the Schiavo Case

Tom at MuD & PHuD has an interesting post in this week's Best of Homespun about the legal wranglings in the Schiavo case. Before continuing, go read that one.

In a followup today Tom responds to a comment left by on the first post. This is the point of discussion in Tom's first post:
The second inaccuracy involved with the polling is the question as to whether or not the government should step in to counteract the courts' decisions and save her life. Does anyone see the problem there? How about the fact that our government (state and federal) is composed of three (count 'em, three) branches. Those would be (in the order in which they are found in the US Constitution): the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial. So, the government was involved in this case way, way before you or I had ever heard of it, let alone before the US Congress stepped in. So why should the Congress, President or even the Governor not have the power to impose a check (or even a balance) on the Judicial branch? As a matter of fact, they have every right to do exactly that (see point 3a).
To which the commenter, dopderbeck, responded:
I share a few of your sentiments, but you have it wrong about Congress and the courts. Nothing in the Constitution suggests that Congress can overrule the factual findings of a state court. That's the role of the state appellate courts, which, not incidentally, affirmed the trial court's ruling in this case. If legislatures or executives could reverse any judicial order, the courts would be rendered powerless, and there would be no hope of objective justice. In that event, Whoever had the money and power to influence the legislature and/or executive would always win in court, and the average citizen would have not hope of justice against the powerful. Even worse, if Congress could overrule state trial courts, state governmental authority would wither away. Do you really want Washington telling the local judge in your county how it should decide your auto accident case?

There's lots to question in the Schiavo case, but the trial court's authority isn't one of them, and Congress was out of line when it tried to step in.
The question of state vs federal authority on this issue has caused many "players" to switch sides from their usual position in the debate. The federal courts do (rightly) generally leave the interpretation of state laws up to state courts. However, this general rule is routinely violated in death penalty cases, of course, and civil rights/due process grounds are often used by liberals to federalize a state case. Sometimes this is even justified, e.g. desegregation of the Old South.

So dopderbeck's basic argument is reasonable, although he takes it to rather absurd lengths in worrying about "If legislatures or executives could reverse [...] how it should decide your auto accident case?" This is just silly. For one thing, our problem today is more the judiciary writing its own laws and ignoring the other two branches, rather than getting crushed by the overzealous excecutive and legislature.

Federalizing a state issue should not be done lightly, and arguably is already done too much. Despite the outcry against a special law for this one case, we think that was the best course here. Because it was narrowly tailored to the particular situation, one case did not result in a general bad law (at least not from the legislature and executive).

However, we think Tom's general point is correct and that the legislative and executive branches most certainly do have the power to reign in runaway judges. This power extends not only to the appoint and impeachment process, but also to changing the laws. This is the reason that Hamilton called the judicial branch the weakest of the three. Today, many seem to believe that whatever a judge says is sacrosanct. A few, unelected judges can tell the other two branches of government, who do face voters, to "shove off."

The degree of judicial overreaching in this case is staggering. See this article on by Jan M. LaRue to see just how bad it is. Un-freaking-believeable.

Moving Tom's point back to the state level, it seems to us that the Florida legislature and Florida executive branch do properly have the power to overrule a Florida judge in a matter of state law by passing a new law. How could they not have that power, provided the law itself is not unconstitutional (state or federal)? We are supposed to be a nation ruled by laws and representative government, not by judges redefining the law as they go according to their whims.

Disclaimer: We are not a lawyer, nor do we play one on TV.

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