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Dynamic Complementarity: Terri's Law and Separation of Powers Principles in the End-of-Life Context
Journal Articles
  • O. Carter Snead, Notre Dame Law School
Document Type
Publication Date
Publication Information
57 Fla. L. Rev. 53 (2005)

The bitter dispute over the proper treatment of Theresa Marie Schiavo - a severely brain-damaged woman, unable to communicate and with no living will or advance directive - has garnered enormous attention in the media, both national and international. What began as a heated disagreement between Ms. Schiavo's husband and parents mushroomed into a massive political conflict involving privacy advocates on one side, and right-to-life and disability activists on the other. The battle raged on the editorial pages of the world's newspapers, in the courts, and ultimately, in the legislative and executive branches of the Florida state government. After nearly three years of acrimonious litigation between Michael Schiavo (Ms. Schiavo's husband) and the Schindler family (Ms. Schiavo's parents), a Florida court ordered that nutrition and hydration for Ms. Schiavo be discontinued. Six days after implementation of the court's order, the Florida Legislature passed Terri's Law, authorizing the Governor, under certain prescribed circumstances, to issue a one-time stay of court-ordered withdrawal of life-sustaining measures, and to appoint a guardian ad litem to review the matter and report back to the executive branch and the chief judge of the relevant Florida court. Pursuant to this new authority, the Governor stayed the order issued by the court, and nutrition and hydration were restored to Ms. Schiavo.

To date, the public debate on this matter has been framed as a conflict between or a balancing of abstract concepts such as the right to die, the sanctity of life, and the rights of the disabled. Little scholarly attention has been paid, however, to an enormously important question at the heart of this matter, namely, what the proper roles of the various branches of government are in a case such as Schiavo's. The proper question is not whether the government has a role in a dispute such as this - it clearly became involved once the matter moved to the state courts - but rather how the government should be involved. Which branch, if any, should have the last word in such a dispute? In these cases, should the relationship between governmental branches be hierarchical or complementary? Which branch of government is best situated to resolve these disputes? This Article, using the Schiavo case as the relevant point of departure, essays to address these questions. Specifically, the questions presented are twofold: (1) Were the Florida Legislature's (and by extension, the Governor's) actions in the Schiavo case consistent with the constitutional principles of separation of powers? (2) If so, did the actions of the executive and legislative branches in this case promote or undermine the purposes and logic of the Florida laws governing end-of-life decisionmaking, taken as a whole? That is, is Terri's Law wise public policy from a structural, governmental view?

Citation Information
O. Carter Snead. "Dynamic Complementarity: Terri's Law and Separation of Powers Principles in the End-of-Life Context" (2005)
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