Friday, March 25, 2005

Schiavo Shell-Game

Pursuant to MLS’s comments on my previous post about the Schiavo case, I did some further research. My original gut reaction, as indicated in the previous post, was that Congress’s action in this case was an unconstitutional violation of federalist principles. Now I’ve decided it probably was constitutional, at least in meeting the letter of the Constitution, but it still violates the spirit of federalism. Here’s my explanation of the issues as I now understand them, with the caveat that I’m not a lawyer.

The Schindlers (Schiavo’s parents) claim the process that led to the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube violated rights guaranteed by the 14th amendment. I think their claim is bogus, but they have a legal right to make it. Since their claim is based on federal constitutional law, it can be heard in federal court. But the question is, how? When a case arises under state jurisdiction but raises federal issues, the usual procedure is that the state courts (up to and including the state’s Supreme Court) may rule on the federal issues. Those issues may then be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, not to a federal district court. This procedure is prescribed by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which finds its basis in the U.S. Judicial Code.

As a result, when the Schindlers appealed their case to the U.S. District Court, the judge ruled against them on grounds that his court lacked jurisdiction (and he did not rule on the merits of the case). This was a straightforward application of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. If the Schindlers wanted federal relief, their only route of appeal was to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

However, nothing in the Constitution dictates the procedure described above, which derives entirely from the U.S. Code and the Rooker/Feldman decisions. Article 3, section 1 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide jurisdiction in such cases. With Schiavo, Congress decided to change the usual procedure by allowing the case to be appealed to a federal court lower than the Supreme Court.

Since Congress does have the power to decide jurisdictional issues like these, I have to conclude that the Schiavo law was, strictly speaking, constitutional. But as a matter of federalism and the rule of law, I still find Congress’s action in this case highly troubling.

First, Congress was forum-shopping, trying to find a judge who would reach the desired conclusions. The Schindlers already had their chance to make a case on federal grounds and lost (when the Supreme Court declined to hear their case, thereby allowing the Florida courts’ rulings on federal matters to stand). Congress was just hoping that a judge on a lower federal court would hear the case and decide differently. The case was finished, and Congress essentially voted to have a do-over because they didn’t like the outcome.

Second, though the wording of the Schiavo law restricted the federal review to matters of constitutional law, it’s apparent from public statements by members of Congress that their intent was broader. They objected to the conclusions of fact reached by the Florida courts vis-à-vis Schiavo’s medical condition and her wishes regarding artificial life support. Those matters are undoubtedly the purview of the states, not the federal government. Note also that the Schindlers are trying to persuade a federal court to reopen the factual issues, by saying that the removal of the feeding tube violated Schiavo’s right to life, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, because it was contrary to her desire to stay alive. Whether that’s true, of course, depends on a particular factual judgment about Schiavo’s wishes. That judgment has already been made by state courts and is no business of the federal government.

Thanks to MLS (in the comments to the previous post) and Matt Conigliaro’s Abstract Appeal for helpful clarifications.

5 comments:

Brett Bellmore said...

Quite aside from the merits, don't you think it's just a bit silly to say that somebody "already had their chance to make a case on federal grounds and lost", when what's actually happened is that the lower court, in your own words, "refused to rule on the merits", and the Supreme court simply refused to take the appeal without comment?

I guess, technically speaking, if the judge flipped a coin, and threw you out of the courtroom if it came up heads, you could be said to have had "a chance" (Fifty-fifty, yet!) to make your case. But that's not the way the phrase is generally understood...

Glen Whitman said...

Brett -- The Schindlers' federal claims had already been heard in the Florida courts (which is standard procedure under Rooker/Feldman). Then they appealed from that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. This happens all the time, because the Supreme Court turns down cases all the time (as do all courts of appeals). When they do so, they allow the ruling of the lower court to stand. Nobody is entitled to an appeal -- they are only entitled to *seek* an appeal. The Schindlers had already exercised that right.

Brett Bellmore said...

I suppose I just don't like the terminology; Having "a chance to make your case", and the judge basicly putting his fingers in his ears and going "Neener, neener, neener", because he's not going to rule on the merits of what you say, seem mutually exclusive.

MLS said...

I think you've got it pretty much correct. Two nits:

1. Rooker/Feldman does not require (nor is it necessarily the usual procedure) that, when a federal issue is raised, the state courts pass on it first. Obviously a federal court can also hear federal claims first. When a case posses a federal question and it can be brought in either federal or state court, the plaintiff ordinarily chooses where to file. Rooker-Feldman says that *if* the suit is in state court and that court decides the federal question, *then* you don't get to re-litigate the very same issue in a separate federal suit.

(So, Brett, the Schindlers did have a chance to make their case and have it be heard on the merits, in front of the state court. But they couldn't then have a federal court consider the very same arguments again; it was the federal court that refused to hear the merits of the case.)

2. In the comments, you wrote "Nobody is entitled to an appeal -- they are only entitled to *seek* an appeal." Not so. In almost every case I can think of, a litigant is entitled to at least one appeal as of right -- this is true in the federal system and in every state that I'm familiar with. Subsequent appeals (such as to the Supreme Court, or a state high court) are, as you describe, discretionary. But it is incorrect to say that "all courts of appeals" turn down hearing appeals "all the time." They certainly affirm lower courts' rulings all the time, for a variety of reasons, but they do not decline to even hear the appeal in the first place.

MLS said...

I think you've got it pretty much correct. Two nits:

1. Rooker/Feldman does not require (nor is it necessarily the usual procedure) that, when a federal issue is raised, the state courts pass on it first. Obviously a federal court can also hear federal claims first. When a case posses a federal question and it can be brought in either federal or state court, the plaintiff ordinarily chooses where to file. Rooker-Feldman says that *if* the suit is in state court and that court decides the federal question, *then* you don't get to re-litigate the very same issue in a separate federal suit.

(So, Brett, the Schindlers did have a chance to make their case and have it be heard on the merits, in front of the state court. But they couldn't then have a federal court consider the very same arguments again; it was the federal court that refused to hear the merits of the case.)

2. In the comments, you wrote "Nobody is entitled to an appeal -- they are only entitled to *seek* an appeal." Not so. In almost every case I can think of, a litigant is entitled to at least one appeal as of right -- this is true in the federal system and in every state that I'm familiar with. Subsequent appeals (such as to the Supreme Court, or a state high court) are, as you describe, discretionary. But it is incorrect to say that "all courts of appeals" turn down hearing appeals "all the time." They certainly affirm lower courts' rulings all the time, for a variety of reasons, but they do not decline to even hear the appeal in the first place.