Legal Scholars Taking a Look at Chimps’ Personhood

The recent court cases brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) have started to garner attention, not only from animal activists and the research sector, but from the general public as well.  Recently, Matthew Goldberg, a Boston-area writer who has been featured in the Federalist and New Boston Post, wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece on the subject.

In his article, Goldberg discussed the difference between legal rights and duties, which was a major focus  of the court in its most recent decision. The court explained that NhRP’s personhood argument is specious—chimps cannot have the legal right to exist without potential use as research subjects precisely because they also cannot, for example, pay a parking ticket or serve a prison sentence for mauling another chimp (or human for that matter).

Goldberg addressed another argument by NhRP, that primate intelligence warrants legal personhood explaining the potential for the use of that precedent to deny rights to humans with limited intelligence or cognitive impairment.

The article seems to conflate rights—to which animals are entitled, as, for example, undergirds laws against animal cruelty—with full personhood, to which animals are not entitled because they are not capable of fulfilling the attendant legal duties.

Goldberg asked thoughtful questions in this piece, leaving room for more dialogue on the subject and possibly signifying increased public attention to and interest in personhood arguments (as will play out again in NhRP’s appeal).

Latest Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) Chimpanzee Lawsuit Rejected

A New York judge on Friday, January 29 blocked an animal rights group from pursuing a new lawsuit seeking release of a chimpanzee from a Niagara Falls sanctuary, despite support from primatologist Jane Goodall.

State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe refused to sign an order sought by Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to force facility directors into her Manhattan courtroom to defend keeping the animal in captivity. Judge Jaffe is the same jurist who granted a hearing requiring Stony Brook University to “show cause” for maintaining two research chimpanzees. Following that hearing, the court denied NhRP’s petition for a writ of habeaus corpus and Stony Brook subsequently returned the two chimpanzees to their owner, the New Iberia Primate Research Center in Louisiana.

According to the UK Telegraph, Judge Jaffe said the group previously filed four similar petitions in other federal courts in the state and, despite the new affidavits from Goodall and others, did not show why its latest request to release the Niagara Falls chimpanzee belonged in Manhattan. Copies of NhRP documents related to this case, including new supporting affidavits, are available here.

New York’s Highest Court Deals Serious Blow to Chimpanzee “Personhood” Movement

Earlier today, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, declined to hear appeals brought forward by animal rights lawyer Stephen Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP).

Previous attempts by Wise and NhRP to seek a writ of habeas corpus for privately-owned chimpanzees had failed in lower courts. Wise argued that chimpanzees were denied their basic legal rights, comparing them to slaves and prisoners.  Previously, three justices in a midlevel court denied legal standing for chimpanzees by saying the animals "cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions."  Most recently, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffee noted in Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) v. Stanley that, "Animals… are accorded no legal rights beyond being guaranteed the right to be free from physical abuse and other mistreatment.”

To read more about today's developments, please see the coverage by U.S. News & World Report and ABC News.

New York Judge Rules Against Habeas Corpus for Chimps

Today, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffee ruled against a writ of habeas corpus for chimpanzees.

The case, Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) v. Stanley, brought forward by animal rights lawyer Stephen Wise and the NhRP, sought to establish legal rights on behalf of two chimpanzees currently located at Stony Brook University.  Wise and the NhRP had argued that these animals were denied their basic legal rights, going so far as to compare them to slaves and prisoners.

In her decision, Justice Jaffee defined "persons" as those who have "rights, duties, and obligations" and noted that, "Animals, including chimpanzees and other highly intelligent mammals, are considered as property under the law. They are accorded no legal rights beyond being guaranteed the right to be free from physical abuse and other mistreatment.” She also wrote, "The past mistreatment of humans, whether slaves, women, indigenous people or others, as property, doesn't, however, serve as a legal predicate or appropriate analogy for extending to nonhumans the status of legal personhood."

Justice Jaffee's decision is available for viewing here.

To read more about today's ruling, please see the coverage by The Wall Street JournalReuters, The New York Daily News, and The New York Post.

Please stay tuned for a more in-depth legal analysis from NABR.

New York Judge Amends Order in Chimpanzee ‘Personhood’ Case

Questions about the legal rights of chimpanzees, including their possible “personhood,” have received considerable media attention, beginning in the late 1990’s as the field of animal rights law began to grow more active. So when a New York judge issued an order April 20 in a case filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of two research chimpanzees, a Google News search produced nearly 150 results about it. Media outlets often parrot animal rights organizations’ interpretations of the facts, and this was all too true in this instance. A NhRP press release mistakenly claimed for the “first time in world history” a judge “recognizes two chimpanzees as legal persons and grants them writ of habeas corpus.” Many media outlets repeated these statements and/or went even further with their headlines.

It appears the New York Post was the first news organization to actually contact the court for clarification and reported that Judge Barbara Jaffe had “her principal court attorney send out an email blasting the activists’ ‘inaccurate press release’ and insisting that her order merely scheduled a May 6 hearing in the case.” She also quickly amended her written order by crossing out reference to a Writ of Habeas Corpus from the pre-printed title. The New York Daily News updated their account saying the action was a “routine determination to consider the matter [and] stopped short of implying that chimps are persons — as the group exuberantly proclaimed in a press release that got international attention.” The New York Times (subscription required) also carried a more complete, updated story. Nature published a reliable question and answer piece about the confusing legal implications. However, while some other media outlets have done second or revised reports, there are still erroneous news articles available online and new ones are appearing.

NABR’s Special Update of April 21 was correctly cautious about the New York court’s order in this case and its implications thanks to the advice of our own legal counsel and that of Pepperdine School of Law Professor Richard Cupp, who are following developments closely. In that regard, the Office of the New York Solicitor General, representing Stony Brook University in the matter, requested a postponement for submitting their response. The hearing of same is now set to take place on May 27 in Manhattan.

Chimpanzee “Personhood” Case to Have Habeas Corpus Hearing in New York

A New York judge issued an order yesterday requiring the President of the State University of New York at Stony Brook  and the university itself to show cause why an order should not be entered granting a writ of habeas corpus to two chimpanzees.  The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed the Petition for the order on March 19, asking that the two research chimpanzees be immediately released from Stony Brook and transferred to Save the Chimps, a private Florida facility.  The same request had already been dismissed by a Suffolk County, NY court, and NhRP’s appeal of the decision was subsequently denied.  Rather than appealing the case further, NhRP decided to re-file their petition in Manhattan. As a result, NY State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffee issued the subject order and has scheduled a hearing in New York City on May 6, or as soon thereafter as counsel can be heard.  Stony Brook, as a state institution, will be represented by the Office of the New York Attorney General.

A NhRP press release carries the headline claim, “First Time in World History Judge Recognizes Two Chimpanzees as Legal Persons, Grants them Writ of Habeas Corpus.”  However, that interpretation is debatable.  According to Science, Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted expert on the issue of personhood for animals, cautions against reading too much into the ruling. “The judge may merely want more information to make a decision on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth,” he said in an e-mail to Science. “It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side’s arguments.”

This is the latest development in the quest of NhRP President Steven Wise to establish chimpanzees as legal persons.  Three suits were originally filed in New York in December 2013.  Thus far, none has met with success, although a final appeal in the other cases is still pending.

Nonhuman Rights Project Re-Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Two Research Chimpanzees in New York

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has re-filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two research chimpanzees, located at Stony Brook University. This time the case was taken to the Supreme Court of New York County in Manhattan. Last year, the appellate court in Brooklyn refused the NhRP appeal of the suit’s dismissal by a lower court in Suffolk County, saying the group lacked the right to appeal. As described in more detail by Courthouse News, none of NhRP’s three original chimpanzee lawsuits in New York have been successful thus far. New York's high court, the Court of Appeals, still is considering a NhRP motion for leave to appeal in one case. It is possible the group may yet petition the state’s court of final appeal for consideration of the other.

The legal quest of NhRP leader Steven Wise continues to garner some media attention. Most recently the International Business Times published an in-depth story, including links to Wise’s TED Talk video.

Court Dismisses Chimpanzee “Personhood” Case

Today, Thursday, December 4, a New York appeals court unanimously affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit seeking legal personhood for a chimpanzee.  This appeal was in response to an earlier dismissal by a court in Fulton County that denied a request by the Nonhuman Rights Project for a writ of habeas corpus last December.

The Supreme Court of the New York Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department specifically pointed to the definition of “person” in Black’s Law Dictionary which defines a person as, "[a] human being" or, as relevant here, "[a]n entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having the rights and duties [of] a human being."

In affirming the dismissal, the court stated, “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights – such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus – that have been afforded to human beings.”

To support its ruling, the court also cited two law review articles authored by Pepperdine Law Professor Richard L. Cupp Jr., who presented at a NABR Webinar “Understanding Animal Legal Personhood Issues” in April.  The law review articles argued that rather than creating new rights for animals, society and its laws should place greater focus on humans’ moral responsibility for our treatment of animals.

In a separate case filed by the same organization, judges in a Rochester, NY appeals court on Tuesday heard arguments that a privately owned chimpanzee in Niagara Falls should be considered a legal person with a right to “not be owned or imprisoned.”  A decision is not expected in this case until early 2015.

To read today’s full decision, please click here, and continue to visit NABR.org for updates on animal law and animal “personhood” news.

Second Chimpanzee “Personhood” Appeal Heard in New York

Judges at an appeals court in Rochester, New York, heard arguments on Tuesday, December 2 that a chimpanzee owned by a couple in Niagara Falls should be considered a legal person with a right to “not be owned or imprisoned.” The lawsuit was filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an animal rights group that hopes to set a landmark legal precedent: rights for an animal other than Homo sapiens.

Legal experts say their chances are slim, but the argument is being heard. An online report of the hearing with some questions asked by the panel of judges was published this morning in Wired.com.

A decision is not expected in this appeal until early next year; a decision on the first appeal filed in Albany, NY, on behalf of another chimpanzee may come in the next few weeks.