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Case of Life and Death

Aired March 18, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala; on the right, Terry Holt.

In the CROSSFIRE: a case of life and death. Congress steps in to try to keep Terri Schiavo alive with an extraordinary 11th-hour maneuver.

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: Terri is alive. And this judge in Florida want to pull her feeding tube and let her starve for two weeks. That is barbaric. Unless she had specifically written instructions in her hand and with her signature, I don't care what her husband says.

ANNOUNCER: is the federal government overstepping its bounds in the brain-damaged Florida woman's case?



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Terry Holt.



We know where Terri Schiavo's husband stands. He says it is his brain-damaged wife's desire that her feeding tube be removed. And this afternoon, it was. We also know where Terri's parents stand. They say their daughter should not be slowly starved to death. But today, we learned the views not only of members of Mrs. Schiavo's family, but also of members of Congress.

So, the question arises, should federal lawmakers stay out of a family's most wrenching decision or are politicians rushing in to protect a defenseless woman from a court system that cannot or will not protect her?

Joining us here to debate all of this, in D.C. is Jay Sekulow. He is the chief counsel of the American Center For Law and Justice. He represented Terri Schiavo's parents before the U.S. Supreme Court. And, in Detroit, criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who represented Dr. Jack Kevorkian. And sitting in on the right as our guest host, Terry Holt.

TERRY HOLT, GUEST CO-HOST: Mr. Fieger, welcome to the program.

GEOFFREY FIEGER, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes, sir. Thank you. Thank you very much. Nice to be back.


HOLT: As Jack Kevorkian's attorney, the guy I think most people know as Dr. Death, I take it you're in favor of ending this woman's life.

FIEGER: I'm in favor of allowing the husband to make the decision. This is a well-established constitutional principle. The Supreme Court decided it in the case of Nancy Cruzan, which was virtually an identical case to this.

And the mechanisms that have been used by both Congress and Schiavo's parents to circumvent clearly established constitutional rights are truly obscene in the name of politics, truly, almost unheard of in the history of this country.

HOLT: Mr. Fieger, if I may, if the parents are willing to care for and love and continue their relationship with their daughter, why shouldn't the husband -- why does it matter what the husband says?

FIEGER: Because he has preeminent rights.

And let me just also tell you something that is not being said here.

HOLT: He owns her? He owns her, sir?


FIEGER: Excuse me. He doesn't own her. Neither do the parents own her. But he is the closest living relative to her.

And let me tell you something that's not being said. Who is paying for this, on top of it? It is not the parents, I can assure you. It is either the taxpayers or the insurance companies through the taxpayers, because she cannot be maintained at home. She has to be maintained in a hospital or hospice setting. And that's the great unstated thing. There are thousands of patients like Terri Schiavo and these decisions are made across the United States.

This particular case has garnered the attention of the anti- abortion and the religious coalition and they have coalesced over this case. But this is absurd. Can you imagine the kind of intrusions that might be made on behalf of a sister or a friend?


HOLT: Mr. Fieger, let me -- let ask you, just a second, to let Mr. Sekulow come in. First, Jay, let me welcome you back to the broadcast.



BEGALA: This is a difficult issue.

You did represent Ms. Schiavo's parents before the Supreme Court.


BEGALA: I have to say, personally, good for you. I happen to be on your side in this matter. I don't like seeing somebody killed.

But isn't this a decision to be made by the family in the living room? Now, they couldn't come to terms, the parents vs. the father -- the husband, father, parents vs. the husband. So, they went to the courtroom. I think that is legitimate, too. Family disputes go to the courts. Why is the Congress getting, though -- this is where I get off the train. It is wrong -- I think Mr. Fieger makes a very good point -- for politicians to be grandstanding on this family's personal pain, isn't it?

SEKULOW: Well, look, no one wants to do grandstanding. And I'll tell you this. And I want to respond to something Geoff said.

To impugn the motives of the parents here, none of us can realize what those parents are going for right now, as their daughter has been in this condition and continues in this condition now without, we're talking about here, food and water. We're not talking about a ventilator. She breathes on her own. Now, the difficulty here, of course, is what you said. What is the role of each branch of government?

BEGALA: Right.

SEKULOW: And the courts have not given the parents a satisfactory answer.


BEGALA: The courts are following the law, though, Jay.

SEKULOW: OK. But here's what happens.

Governors, as you know -- if this -- could you imagine if someone was on death row, on death row, and the decision was to deny them food and water as the method of death? Do you know what that would be called? Cruel and unusual punishment. Would a governor have the right to intervene and say, yes, you know what, we don't do that? Yes. A governor could do that. That's under the constitution of the state.

And, of course, on a federal level, there is a thing called cruel and unusual punishment. If a death row inmate was going to be denied that, we call it cruel and unusual punishment. If you did it to a dog or a cat, it would be cruelty to animals. So we're going to...


BEGALA: I understand. I understand all of that.

SEKULOW: So you have got to put all this into perspective.


FIEGER: Could I make one point here? You make a very good point.

But if this was -- if Terri Schiavo wasn't Terri Schiavo, but she was a black indignant man who was about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit, nobody would be doing this. No governor, no president, no Congress would be passing laws. And guess what? We have executed hundreds of innocent people.


SEKULOW: I don't think there's anybody that supports being starved to death, even people that are on death row. We just don't do that.


SEKULOW: There's more humanity in the culture than that.

FIEGER: Are we taking -- if we're talking about...


SEKULOW: So, I mean, to say that, if she was a black female, no one would care, a black -- ridiculous. Let's talk about the fact here. You asked the real question, Paul. And that is...


FINEMAN: No, I'll tell you about it, having represented Kevorkian.


SEKULOW: Can Congress intervene? My answer is yes.

HOLT: Mr. Fieger, may I ask...


FIEGER: Please, let me tell you.


FIEGER: Let me respond in one area. Let me respond in one area.

The idea of pulling a feeding tube came directly from the people who opposed Dr. Kevorkian. Kevorkian said, if you're going to end a life and somebody wants to end it, let's do it quickly and painlessly.


FIEGER: Instead, the religious forces said, the anti- abortionists said, you can't do it. You have got to remove the feeding tube.


FIEGER: Now they say...

SEKULOW: Relying on...


SEKULOW: ... Dr. Kevorkian here I don't think buys a whole lot of support.

FIEGER: Wait a second.

Now they say that's wrong. It was those forces. It was the religious right and the anti-abortionists who advocated the pulling of the tube. They said, that's the natural way to go. I said that was obscene. Kevorkian said that was obscene, but it was your people who advocated that.

HOLT: Mr. Fieger, as a trial attorney, I expected that you -- you ran as a Democrat in Michigan. Do you think that Congress is playing an appropriate role in protecting someone who can't protect themselves, for example? Isn't it appropriate for Congress to step in for the little guy or, in this case, the little lady that can't speak for herself?


When Congress, when the lawmakers attempt to circumvent the court systems, our tripartite form of government is threatened at its very core. If there is no respect now for the decisions of the court -- and Ms. Schiavo has had more reviews by more courts than any human being, literally, that I can possible imagine in terms of due process.

SEKULOW: But, Geoffrey, the real issue, governors can give -- they can give stays and governors can grant clemency. When someone has been found guilty of murder and they have been charged and given a death penalty by a jury, a governor can say no.


SEKULOW: And here we're saying, well, gee, it's Congress. They can't do anything.

BEGALA: Yes. Isn't that the difference, that Congress... FIEGER: But lawmakers cannot circumvent he courts, the way this is occurring.

SEKULOW: They're not circumventing. They're exercising constitutional authority. They're allowed to issue subpoenas. You know that.

BEGALA: But, Jay, let me come back to this question of whether, as Terri mentioned, that Congress is standing up for someone who is defenseless.


BEGALA: You know, I'm sorry. Spare me. Tom DeLay and his Republican friends in Congress are cutting funding for children...

SEKULOW: But it's not just Congress.


BEGALA: No, just a minute. They're cutting off children from health care. Children will die because of that.


BEGALA: They send men into battle without body armor.

SEKULOW: That's not fair.

BEGALA: Men have died because of that. They're not interested in the right to life. They're interested in grandstanding.



SEKULOW: Really? You're talking about your own party, then, because you know what the vote was in the House of Representatives, right?


SEKULOW: Plenty of Democrats.


BEGALA: I believe it was wrong for any politician...


SEKULOW: There was a lot of Democrats.

BEGALA: This is for the family and for the courts, but not for the Congress.

(CROSSTALK) SEKULOW: Democratic co-sponsors in Florida, in the Florida legislation.

BEGALA: Well, what about this question of, the Congress has now issued a subpoena.


BEGALA: The House Government Reform Committee, which yesterday solved the problem of steroids in baseball, now that that is behind them, now they are getting into the Schiavos'...

SEKULOW: This is a little bit more important, in my view.

BEGALA: They're going into the Schiavo's family business. They were united in looking at the public policy question of steroids in sports.


BEGALA: Very deeply divided on this. Henry Waxman, Henry Waxman, the senior member of the Democratic part of the committee.


SEKULOW: Not so deeply divided on this, if you looked at the House of Representatives votes on the way this was going.


SEKULOW: And wasn't it a voice vote in the House of Representatives for Terri Schiavo, a voice vote? You know voice votes are not typical.


BEGALA: What will the committee learn by subpoenaing...


HOLT: Unusually bipartisan.


SEKULOW: Well, maybe they'll learn something like there's been no neurological exam in 15 years?

BEGALA: Let me ask you -- then they should talk to...

FIEGER: No, nonsense.

BEGALA: They have subpoenaed this poor woman, who is brain- damaged and should, I think, remain on a feeding tube, but she should not be drawn into a congressional hearing room, Jay, should she?

SEKULOW: But she's -- no, but she's not being -- but she's not on a feeding tube. That's been withdrawn.

BEGALA: I said she should be.

SEKULOW: That's right. We all agree that. So Congress is saying...

BEGALA: And should she be dragged into a hearing room and be put on national television?

SEKULOW: In something like this, when it's life and death, what do you do? You do what the president said last night. You side on caution. You side on life in a situation like this. It's not that complicated.


FIEGER: Sure. That's what he did in Texas as the -- that's what he did as the governor in executing people. He decided on life.


BEGALA: A fair point, Mr. Fieger.

Believe me, we will come back. And when we come back, I want to ask both these guys a little more about President Bush's role in this. Our president was in Florida today. CNN asked him directly about the Schiavo case. He refused to comment. So, when we come back, I'll ask our guests if President Bush is prudently staying out of this family's matter or cowardly ducking a tough issue.

Stay with us to learn their answer.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Congress is weighing in on the case of Terri Schiavo. President Bush, who was in Schiavo's home state of Florida today, refused to publicly comment on the case.

Joining us to debate the proper role of politicians in this life- or-death matter, here in our Washington studios, Jay Sekulow. He is the chief counsel of the American Center For Law and Justice. He represented Terri Schiavo's parents before the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in Detroit, criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who has, among many other clients, represented Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Jay, let me ask you. Geoffrey before the break made the point, when he was my governor in Texas, he not only executed Karla Faye Tucker. He mocked her and laughed about it. He executed Betty Lou Beets, a great-grandmother. And today, he refused to speak out in support of this congressional action. Do you think people who really care about saving Terri are going to be upset with President Bush?

SEKULOW: No, he issued a statement last night.

BEGALA: A written piece of paper. But he was in her state today. (CROSSTALK)

SEKULOW: This is a president that respects the separation of powers. This was an act of Congress.


SEKULOW: He's not going it come in and tell Congress what they must do. But he's the president of the United States. He made a very clear statement. I think it's the right statement. He said, look, when there's questions like this, side on caution, side on life, which you agree with. You said you think it's the right call.

BEGALA: It was also the case with the great-grandmother he executed.


SEKULOW: The president has the authority in a death penalty case to do that. He could go either way.

HOLT: I'm not sure what the president has to do with this.

But, Mr. Fieger, you disturbed me in one of your last -- one of your last questions. You responded that there were economic concerns.


HOLT: There's thousands of people, as you said, around the country that are watching this with great angst, obviously. Were you meaning to say in the last segment that we should worry about money when it comes to choices of life or death?

FIEGER: No. In fact...

HOLT: That health care...

FIEGER: I'd make the people -- I'd make the people that are marching out there and want to keep her alive pay for it. You see, it's very easy to march and it's very easy to make this a cause...

SEKULOW: That's called free speech, by the way.

FIEGER: ... as long as you don't have to reach in your pocket for that.


HOLT: ... an economic decision, that an economic decision ought to take precedence over the sanctity of life?

FIEGER: Well, I can assure you that that economic decision is made every day in terms of health care. And if that economic decision wants to be made by these politicians, then they better stand up and say, we're going to make the taxpayers pay, not just for Terri Schiavo, but for everybody in her condition, because we're going to side on the side of life.


SEKULOW: I think that our taxpayers will do it. Absolutely. Absolutely.

FIEGER: They won't do it.


SEKULOW: If you want to put this on the taxpayers, do it, because the American people say...


SEKULOW: We'll take care of those that are less fortunate.

BEGALA: Let me interject -- let me interject a little reality.

Our president wants to cut $60 billion from Medicaid.

FIEGER: That's right.

BEGALA: Which is the primary health care for poor people like Terri Schiavo.



SEKULOW: You know what, though? Here's the thing. You know what? That's a political decision.


SEKULOW: But let me also clarify one thing. President Bush's statement is his statement.

But you know what? The parents have said, we will take care of her. They said they have the means to do it. Give the parents that chance.

BEGALA: I understand that.

SEKULOW: That's all we're saying. Give the parents a chance to take care of their daughter.

BEGALA: No, what you're also saying is that the taxpayers will do it. And they won't. The Republicans will not do this.


SEKULOW: Do you think we're going to take a poll of the taxpayers and say, gee, you know what? How many of you want to see this woman starve to death?


BEGALA: Well, why don't we send -- why don't we send cameras to every health clinic where poor children are dying because they don't get health care, because George Bush is cutting their health care?



SEKULOW: No. I think that's right. You should give them health care.

BEGALA: Why don't we do that?

SEKULOW: That's why they're in a health clinic. She's at a hospital. Instead of giving health care, you know what they're doing? They're starving her to death. There's a lot of things you could say, but that's what it is.

BEGALA: Jay Sekulow, that is the last word here in our D.C. studios. Thank you very much.

SEKULOW: Thanks, Paul.

BEGALA: Geoffrey Fieger in Detroit, thank you very much.

FIEGER: Thank you.

BEGALA: And for Terry Holt on the right, I'm Paul Begala on the left,

That's it for CROSSFIRE. Stay tuned, though. "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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