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Federal judge hears arguments, doesn't issue ruling in Schiavo case

TAMPA, Fla.—Terri Schiavo's parents pleaded with a federal judge Monday to order the brain-damaged woman be reconnected to a feeding tube, but the judge expressed skepticism about their case and adjourned a hearing without issuing a ruling.

The judge didn't say when he would rule.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that you have a substantial likelihood" of prevailing, U.S. District Judge James Whittemore of Tampa told the parents' lawyer. That's the usual threshold for the issuance of a temporary order.

The lack of an immediate order was in sharp contrast to the urgency that's surrounded the case in recent days. Members of Congress rushed back from their Easter break for a late-night session that ended early Monday to pass legislation ordering a federal court review. The legislation was then hurried to the White House for President Bush's signature so that Schiavo's parents, Mary and Bob Schindler, could file their lawsuit early Monday.

Outside the Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice where Schiavo has lived for the past 15 years, protesters expressed disappointment at the judicial delay.

"He's stalling," said Carol Rubright of Port Charlotte. "If he waits long enough, she's going to die, so then he won't have to make a decision."

Congressional Republicans who had backed the bill, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., declined to comment.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a sponsor of the bill, said he was prepared to accept the judge's ruling, whenever it comes, and that no further action was planned at the congressional level.

"We're a country of laws," Martinez said. "I think I've done all I can do and I feel that Congress has done all it can do."

A supporter of Schiavo's husband, Michael, who says his wife should be permitted to die, praised the judge for not rushing to action.

"Regardless of his decision, I'm so pleased," Pat Ellis said. "He's proved that he wasn't going to be intimidated by the president of the United States and Congress."

The foremost question—and one with a life or death deadline: Should the 41-year-old woman, in her fourth day Monday without food or water, be reconnected to a feeding tube as the case embarks on another spiraling journey through the legal system?

Doctors said she could die within 10 days if nutrition isn't restored.

"The mother and father are pleading with this court, as they have pleaded with Congress and the nation," David Gibbs, the parents' lawyer, told the judge. "The (state) court has ordered her to ignore her church and even jeopardize her mortal soul."

George Felos, the attorney for Michael Schiavo, called the congressional bill a "horrific intrusion" generated by the "popular political clamor."

"What you are asked to do is to overturn seven years of judicial work of the state of Florida, countenance a severe invasion of her body and force a procedure against her will, trampling on her right of choice," Felos countered.

During the hearing, which lasted 90 minutes, the judge frequently asked the parents' lawyer to cite constitutional precedents for the case. The lawyer was unable to cite any.

Whittemore was nominated to the court in 1999 by President Clinton and has been described by the Tampa Tribune as "one of the best judges in Tampa's courts." A registered Republican, he has a reputation for keeping his courtroom clear of politics and insisting that lawyers be well prepared.

There was no doubt, however, that whatever ruling he makes will engender harsh feelings.

Said Pat Mahoney, executive director of the Christian Defense Coalition: "If he rules against the Schindlers, this is one of the most malicious judges I've ever seen."

Earlier Monday, Michael Schiavo expressed bitterness over Congress' intervention in the case. Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers have tangled for years over Schiavo's fate.

He says she's been in a vegetative state since early 1990 and should be allowed to die; they say she's responsive and should be sustained through the feeding tube.

"This is a sad day for Terri," he told ABC's "Good Morning America." "But I'll tell you what—it's also is a sad day for everyone in this country because the United States government is going to come in and trample all over your personal family matters."

He didn't comment after Whittemore ended the hearing without ruling.

The Tampa court case was the result of an unprecedented campaign by congressional Republicans that culminated in the passage of a special bill that allowed the Schindlers to file their case in federal court. Bush signed the legislation in the hallway of his residence at 1:11 a.m. The Schindlers' suit was then filed in Tampa at 3 a.m.

"This is complex case with serious issues," Bush said in Tucson, Ariz., where he talked about the case publicly for the first time. "But in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life."

He thanked "Democrats and Republicans" for giving Schiavo's parents "another opportunity to save their daughter's life."

The Schindlers' lawsuit claims that Schiavo's civil rights have been violated through the removal of the feeding tube and the alleged absence of an independent attorney to represent her interests. It seeks an injunction ordering that the tube be reconnected and barring anyone from removing it without a federal judge's order.

Schiavo's condition has persisted since her heart temporarily stopped beating due to a chemical imbalance that might have been caused by an eating disorder. The oxygen supply to her brain was cut off.

She didn't leave any written instructions, though her husband said she had said that she wouldn't want to be maintained by life support.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Nancy San Martin of The Miami Herald in Washington and James Kuhnhenn of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report. Merzer, Buckley and Long report for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BRAINDAMAGEDWOMAN

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050321 Schiavo timeline

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