Friday, March 25, 2005

God Proposes, Man Disposes, TV Exposes

We are a nation of laws. We might have to obey them, but we don’t have to like them.

We are also a nation of lawyers, too many if you ask me, although some of my favorite radio talk show hosts started as lawyers: Hugh Hewitt, Bill Bennett, and Larry Elder. Lawyers can manipulate the law to keep celebrity wife-killers out of jail, but we don’t have to agree with the verdicts.

Do you know why New York got all the lawyers and New Jersey got the toxic waste dumps? New Jersey had first pick. If the analogy fits, that would make judges, too many if you ask me, tantamount to Chernobyl.

Here’s another lawyer joke. Do you know why they call it a practice? I guess you've already figured out the punchline.

The airwaves are inundated by legendary legal pundits like David Boies and Alan Dershowitz dispensing pro bono pro-life advice, but Terri Schiavo needed them arguing on her behalf in courtroom after courtroom. Some lawyers, such as Michael Schiavo's, are clearly better than others, like the Schindlers'. In high profile trials, we have seen the good guys outmaneuvered by the bad guys, but I never thought it could kill you.

When I was a sheltered teenager, I had a disillusioning encounter with our judicial system. I was shopping for a piece of jewelry I could wear with a long necklace, which I brought with me in my purse. As I was deciding to purchase the jewelry, I would pull out a long enough strand to compare the colors of the two, which were not an exact match. I bought the darn thing anyway and was grabbed by the department store security as soon as I stepped outside. They used ridiculously extreme, intimidating interrogation tactics and tried to force me to sign a confession they filled out for me to admit that I stole my own necklace, but I knew I was only guilty of naive stupidity and stood my ground.

When I appeared in court for my arraignment, the judge offered to drop the charges if I would plead no contest but then I would not get my necklace back. With all the conviction of the innocent, outraged that my necklace was being stolen from me, I requested a trial. I was fortunate that the judge reacted kindly and saw that my attorney happened to be inept - even I saw that! After instructing my attorney on my rights, the judge explained to me with gentle forebearance that I probably had a weak case and the opposition had four security officers to testify against me. If one judge can intervene to compensate for bad lawyering over a $5.00 necklace, how can another not do the same when human life is at stake?

That single judge in Florida and a lawyered-up estranged husband hold the power to end Terri Schiavo’s life, which until they removed her feeding tube was nowhere near endangered. Convicted of no crime, she is paying the ultimate penalty. Judge Greer, Judge Whittemore, Justice Kennedy, where is her presumption of innocence?

The most desperate supporters of Terri Schiavo’s right to live are begging the governor of Florida to violate his solemn oath to uphold the laws within his perview, the same crime for which President Bill Clinton was impeached and Chief Justice Roy Moore removed from his Alabama bench. Rightfully we are a society of laws, not of men, but who can blame anyone for expecting the governing principle of our constitution, the right to life, to be at least as important as the legal technicality of a sham marriage? The most powerful elected official in Florida is powerless to save a disabled constituent from court-sanctioned, involuntary euthanasia, but we are told this is how our republic was intended to work. At the core of a family’s personal tragedy is a civics lesson in the checks and balances of government, the legal limits of morality, and the tyranny of a values-neutral judiciary.

Speaking of checks, Judge Greer, is it true that you accepted a 2004 campaign contribution from the law firm representing Michael Schiavo? Is that why you hesitate to recognize Michael’s conflict of interest as guardian to the woman who prevented him from marrying the mother of his young children to whom he is already engaged? Judge Greer, why did you deny the state’s request to release the records of this case?

Alive, Terri is symbolic of the painful dilemma that many families who care for ailing loved ones must face and the fears we all share about our own mortality. Many decent people, including conservatives of faith, watch the video clips of Terri, think “I would never want to live like that,” and resent Congressional intervention in what they perceive as a private dispute. Some probably wish the Schindlers and this 24/7 cable television debate would just go away. Ironically, I hear more people talking about respirators and terminal illness, neither of which relate to Terri Schiavo.

On the brink of death, Terri is bringing families and couples together to discuss the importance of making a clear-cut medical directive at any adult age. I hope women get smarter about the men they marry and vice versa. We need an honest national conversation about the false promises of so-called painless death by dehydration and starvation. Alas, perfect science can be as elusive as perfect justice.

In death, Terri may inspire changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act to protect those who cannot communicate their wishes about life-sustaining care from guardian neglect, abuse and conflict of interest. This week an elementary school teacher who provides physical education adapted for special ed told me she has students in far worse condition than Terri Schiavo. She worries that Judge Greer’s decision establishes a legal precedent for parents who may not be as patient as Mary and Bob Schindler.

Michael Schiavo is about to become a bachelor again. Technically, he will be a widower just as technically Lizzie Borden was an orphan. The difference in terminology between bachelor and widower depends on how celebratory he seems on TV and the public mood will adjust accordingly. He can choose to be a gracious winner or an insensitive jerk. I read that he plans to cremate Terri immediately and keep her ashes in his family’s crypt in Philadelphia. I bet there are lawyers encouraging the Schindlers to seek an autopsy or civil damages and I hope they are more competent than their predecessors. I wonder if lawyers are advising the future Mrs. Michael Schiavo on her medical directive.

The law is an ass, as Charles Dickens wrote, and we are a nation of them.

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