Tags: Congress | Won't | Enforce | Its | Own | Subpoenas

Congress Won't Enforce Its Own Subpoenas

Thursday, 24 March 2005 12:00 AM

As the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to act on Terri Schiavo's parents' desperate emergency petition to have the starving hospice patient's feeding tube replaced, the subpoeanas could give some flickering hope for a life-giving reprieve.

These all-but-forgotten subpoenas - if finally honored - could still force authorities to preserve the life of Schiavo, without question the most vital witness in hang-fire Congressional hearings delving into her treatment and the treatment of all incapacitated adults.

On Friday, March 18, the House Government Reform Committee issued subpoenas to Terri Schiavo, her husband, Michael Schiavo, and selected doctors and employees of her hospice, ordering them to appear at a congressional hearing March 25.

The subpoenas also pointedly required Schiavo's doctors to maintain a key piece of evidence - the medical equipment keeping her alive "in its current and continuing state of operations."

At that time, the committee also made it clear that the Schiavo probe was but part and parcel of a larger Congressional inquiry into "the long-term care of incapacitated adults."

Almost simultaneously, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee formally invited Michael and Terri Schiavo to testify on Monday, March 28.

For sure, when Congress started ripping forth its Schiavo subpoenas, plenty of legal pundits cried foul:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., ominously reminded all parties that it is a federal crime for anyone to interfere with a person's testimony before Congress. (Allowing the chief witness, Terri Schiavo, to starve to death would, of course, be the most profound form of interference.)

But an unimpressed Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer was dismissive of Congressional power, ruling out of hand as to the legitimacy of the subpoenas.

"I don't think legislative bodies or agencies have business in a court proceeding. The fact that you - your committee - decided to do something today doesn't create an emergency," he wrote.

So far, Congress nor the Justice Department has moved against the judge for contempt charges – though he has clearly flouted Congress' long standing power to bring witnesses and evidence before it.

Despite Congressional subpoenas hanging over the case, the Judge moved to put Terri Schiavo to death and ordered her feeding tube removed.

Instead of immediately moving to hold Greer and all subpoenaed parties in contempt of Congress after the Judge and others clearly had tampered with the witness and evidence, that is the feeding tube was removed, the House committee asked another lower state court to recognize the subpoena.

The House committee also quietly asked the U.S. Supreme Court to order the feeding tube reinserted while it appealed in lower courts to have its subpoenas recognized.

The Supreme Court would not issue such an order.

So, why hasn't Congress acted?

In fact, Congress has failed to begin even the most preliminary step – the reporting of a resolution declaring subpoenaed parties in contempt of Congress.

Inaction surprising in the face of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's pledge last week to hold Greer in contempt of Congress for ignoring a congressional subpoena for Terri Schiavo's testimony.

"No little judge sitting in a state district court in Florida is going to usurp the authority of Congress," DeLay said.

Indeed, Senator Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist is on record, saying that subpoenas compelling Terri Schiavo to appear at a March 28 congressional hearing make it a crime to disconnect her feeding tube - and threatened anyone who interfered with her testimony with jai.

"Federal criminal law protects witnesses called before official Congressional committee proceedings from anyone who may obstruct or impede a witness' attendance or testimony," Frist said.

He continued: "More specifically the law protects a witness from anyone who - by threats, force, or by any threatening letter or communication - influences, obstructs, or impedes an inquiry or investigation by Congress. Anyone who violates this law is subject to criminal fines and imprisonment."

According to the rules, in order to be convicted of contempt of Congress, the congressional committee subject to the contempt first must report a resolution that the affected individual is guilty of contempt. This takes a majority vote of the committee. The full House or Senate then must approve the resolution, which sends the matter to a federal attorney, who may call a grand jury to decide whether to indict the affected individual, and prosecute - if the grand jury returns an indictment.

Often such a procedure would take time. But Congress demonstrated in its recent Schaivo bill it can move quickly to pass a law and present it to the President for his signature.


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As the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to act on Terri Schiavo's parents' desperate emergency petition to have the starving hospice patient's feeding tube replaced, the subpoeanas could give some flickering hope for a life-giving reprieve. These all-but-forgotten subpoenas -...
Thursday, 24 March 2005 12:00 AM
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