Separate the Powers

by Amie Sugarman | 11/3/03 6:00am

Florida is a lovely state blessed with warm weather nearly year-round that is the envy of all Dartmouth students, as we brave snowfall in October. However, it is in this state that an assault against the separation of powers on which our nation was founded is currently taking place, all under the supervision of Governor Jeb Bush.

This dispute between branches of government takes us back to Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who has been stuck in a vegetative state and fed by a tube since 1990, when a heart problem resulted in extensive brain damage. Although Terri has no living will, her husband, Michael Schiavo and several other relatives state that she notified them on multiple occasions that she would "never want to be kept alive artificially," according to a recent article in The New York Times. Since numerous doctors testified that Terri will never again be able to swallow food on her own, the removal of Terri's feeding tube would appear to be a rather straightforward matter. However, enter the strong objections of her parents, who contend that with therapy she would in fact be able to swallow food once again unaided.

Terri's parents battled with Michael through the Florida court systems, with Michael the victor in the end. On October 15, Terri's feeding tube was removed over the objections of Terri's parents, who in turn begged Governor Bush to intervene on their behalf. Terri's parents could not accept the notion that their daughter had truly left them long ago, so they figured that pro-life Bush would assist them in their quest to keep Terri artificially alive.

One would think it to be a dead issue at this point, since the United States Supreme Court placed into the hands of the judiciary the right to determine whether or not a terminally ill person desired to be kept artificially alive. Since the court decided that Michael was carrying out his wife's wishes, the Governor has no place in the debate.

Yet, Governor Bush somehow convinced the Florida Legislature to pass legislation that explicitly overrides the court's decision in the case. The Legislature passed Terri's Law, which allowed Bush to order the reinstatement of Terri's feeding tube, an act that runs completely contrary to the decision of the court. Bush is currently being sued by Michael Schiavo, but the implications of this action by the Legislature run far beyond the case itself.

The legislative branch of government does not have the power to decide courses of action in specific cases. In fact, it is precisely the domain of the courts to preside over individual cases and in turn to set precedents for similar future cases. By passing legislation that completely overrides the decisions made by numerous Florida courts, the Legislature has in effect asserted that it has superior authority to the courts. Even more disturbing, the Legislature has now set the precedent that it can intervene in any case and pass legislation that nullifies all court decisions. Now that the Legislature has shattered the barrier of the separation of powers, there is nothing to stop it from continuously overstepping its boundaries.

True, this has all taken place within the sphere of Florida, but the most dangerous part of this breach of the separation of powers is that it opens the floodgates for this to occur on the national level as well. In history, imagine if the Senate had passed legislation that explicitly overturned Brown v. Board of Education, or Roe v. Wade? The Supreme Court's job is to carry out judicial review, or to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress, not the other way around. The legislative branch of government has no place to decide whether or not the courts have ruled in the proper manner.

With this new breakage of the old rule of separation of powers in Florida, we are only a step away from having the federal government begin this practice, as well, which will result in complete chaos within our government. Once there is no map of the duties of each branch, they will all ruthlessly compete to be the most powerful. What sort of order could our government keep in society if its own ranks can't even be kept stable? Governor Bush and the Florida Legislature have opened up a potential Pandora's Box for our government to run out of control.