For just a moment, forget the details of the Schiavo case. Take the names, the medical jargon, the ethical dilemmas and place them on the back burner. For just a moment, take a deep breath and think about what happened this last weekend on Capitol Hill. Congress convened a special assembly to tell Florida’s judiciary that it is not competent to adjudicate a family dispute within its own borders.
Much of the debate surrounding Terri Schiavo has focused on the right to life and the right to die, with both sides of the table arguing over the correct constitutional interpretation of religious freedom and due process of law. These are all interesting and important, but there seems to be an equally significant subject that is not getting as much publicity: the issue of federalism in our system of government.
To oversimplify a complicated subject, federalism refers to the division of powers and responsibilities among the federal government and the states. The Constitution explicitly assigns the federal government a set of responsibilities, which includes such things as national defense, international affairs and interstate commerce. According to the 10th Amendment, the remaining duties are allocated to the states; these have traditionally been understood to encompass such “reserved powers” as health, education, morals and general welfare. It is difficult to dispute that family and moral matters, such as those involved in the Schiavo case, fall under this domain of state responsibility.
The importance of maintaining federalism is easy to understand in this context. Because such responsibilities as health, education and morals are issues of local interest, the national government should not dictate state policy in these arenas. Consider, for example, the topic of education: If Congress were to establish a set of national curriculum standards, the senators and representatives from Texas would have a role in dictating the curriculum of public schools in Massachusetts, and vice versa. To envision the problems that would be created by this scenario, simply consider the different opinions that these two states hold on evolution and sex education. In effect, Texas would be imposing its values on Massachusetts.
Now apply this to the Schiavo case. Last weekend, senators and representatives from outside states and territories intervened in the local affairs of Florida and deemed the state’s issues to be of national interest. This week, the family and moral matters of Florida have been brought before a series of federal judges confirmed by a Senate composed of 49 other states. This should not have been the case. Congress should heed the autonomy of each state, and in doing so recognize the diversity of interests that makes the United States such a unique political entity. Florida should be able to decide for itself how to weigh the interests of the relevant parties in the Schiavo case, according to its own system of morals and values.
Some may defend Congress’ recent legislation, asserting that the federal government should intervene when state court decisions violate constitutional principles. Indeed, this is an argument similar to that of conservative activist Gary Bauer, who claims that “protecting life is an issue that transcends federalism.” Yet individuals who make this claim are quick to forget that all judges, including those at the state level, take an oath to uphold the federal Constitution. The Florida state judges who have ruled in the Schiavo case have seriously evaluated constitutional principles under the First and 14th Amendments before making their decisions. To believe that the Constitution has been subverted or ignored by the decisions of the Florida judiciary would be an error.
Because Congress has asked a federal judge to re-evaluate the case using the same constitutional criteria and tools applied by the Florida state judges, it is difficult to see how a federal judge might come to a different conclusion. This is especially true after considering that federal courts traditionally defer to state courts’ decisions in regional matters.
For non-Floridians, it is most important to realize that this is not an issue of whether Terri Schiavo is truly in a Persistent Vegetative State, or whether the interests of the husband or the parents are most compelling. Rather, it is an issue of which governmental body has jurisdiction over this dispute: the United States or the state of Florida. In this instance, we should recognize the autonomy of Florida and let its courts handle the state’s own affairs. Doing so would neither ignore nor violate any ethical principles; it would only entrust these principles to the Florida judiciary.
Howard Kim is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.