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.

ALF Destroys Animal Research-Related Trucks in Canada

Canadian Regional Police are investigating claims by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) that it is responsible for setting fire to two trucks in west Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, over the weekend. In an anonymous email to the ALF Press Office, the organization says it planted incendiary devices under trucks belonging to Harlan Laboratories. The ALF claims Harlan is “owned” by longtime animal rights extremist target Huntingdon Life Sciences, and the company is responsible for supplying research animals and animal feed. Police received multiple calls about a loud bang, flash of light and heavy smoke just after 3 a.m. Sunday. Officers responded and located a transport truck fully engulfed and part of another in flames behind an industrial warehouse unit. Firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze before it could spread to the warehouse. There were no injuries and no one was on scene when crews arrived, police report.

A photograph of the burning trucks and the full, anonymous email “communiqué” are available at this ALFPO link. The ALF message says in part, "This action was undertaken in order to eliminate this...company's means of transportation, to disrupt the systematic torture and murder of innocent animals, and to cause as much monetary damage as possible." The email also states, "Fortunately, news reports have said that the devices ignited successfully, damaging one truck and completely destroying the other. Our only regret is that the flames were extinguished before they had a chance to spread to Harlan’s offices."

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.

Australia May Turn to AETA-Like Law in Response to Criminal Acts by Animal Extremists

The Australian government could follow the United States’ example by enacting an Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) to address growing public concerns about animal rights extremists, according to FarmWeekly.com.au. Brisbane-based agribusiness lawyer Trent Thorne made the comment at an Australian Livestock Association meeting after a truck and trailer were recently set ablaze at a south-west Western Australian feedlot and a nearby building was vandalized with the words ‘Stop Live Export’ painted across it. That incident prompted Wellard Rural Exports to reveal a series of similar incidents involving activist-related activity, with the potential to cause serious injury or death.

“For the sake of clarity, I am not advocating the introduction of laws of this gravity in the Australian legal framework,” Thorne said, “but social license issues cut both ways.” He continued, “The live export industry is well placed to provide a first-hand account of what happens when you lose the confidence of parts of the wider population. . . if animal rights lobby groups don’t want to play by the rules expected by most fair minded citizens, donations to these groups will almost certainly dry up. And you can also be certain that consideration will be given to the implementation of these types of laws in the Australian context, to ensure people who are conducting their lawful business are not placed in jeopardy.”

PETA and Anti-Abortion Groups File Joint Brief in Pending U.S. Supreme Court Case on Cyber Threats

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a case about whether threats made on Facebook can be considered criminal threats, or if they are protected by the First Amendment. The nation’s highest court decided in June to hear the case of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man convicted in 2011 of making criminal threats on Facebook against his estranged wife and others. Two lower courts previously determined Elonis’ online behavior became criminal when he posted rap lyrics and other messages on his Facebook account that discussed killing his wife.

In the December 1 article, "Are Facebook Rants Threats, or Free Speech?," Fortune reported details about the case, including the fact People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a joint friend of the court (amici curiae) brief with eight anti-abortion groups, and three individuals. According to the article, PETA and fellow amici do not “condone violence or true threats of violence intended to induce fear of imminent harm,” but they do think the government’s arguments could limit their ability to protest. They argue protests are often built around opposition to an authority, and frequently include calls to action and passionate language that could be perceived as intimidating by those the protestors challenge. PETA and the anti-abortion groups’ brief claims that requiring only an objective (“reasonable person” or “negligence”) standard, rather than requiring proof of subjective intent to threaten in order to convict, “would allow those who seek to squelch political protest to use the statute as a sword, silencing those who disagree with their opinions or policies.” Several free-speech rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and media organizations also have submitted briefs arguing that there should be a very high federal standard when it comes to convicting someone for online messages perceived to be threatening. “Words are slippery things, and one person’s opprobrium may be another’s threat,” says the brief from a group led by the ACLU.

Among more than a dozen amicus briefs filed, a number of groups against domestic violence and hate crimes, including the Anti-Defamation League and National Network to End Domestic Violence, have indicated their support for the government’s case against Elonis. Nevertheless, Time wrote last week that many experts expect the Court to rule in Elonis’ favor in order to protect all kinds of speech, no matter how appalling. The Court’s decision is not expected until sometime in 2015.

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.