Monday, December 8, 2014

Chimpanzees are not people

Corporations may be people, but chimpanzees are not. At least not for purposes of filing a habeas corpus petition.

The case is The Nonhuman Rights Project v. Lavery, a ruling from the Appellate Division Third Department decided on December 4. For the uninitiated, a habeas petition is filed when someone claims that he is being held in custody unconstitutionally. This usually arises in criminal cases. Habeas petitions are what distinguish civilized societies from authoritarian societies. It's like a hail-Mary legal procedure when all else has failed, the last safety valve.

In this case, an animal rights group filed a habeas petition in New York State court, claiming that the chimpanzee, Tommy, was being unlawfully detained by a private business. The court decision does not tell us why the plaintiff wants Tommy away from his captor. To read more about the case from the plaintiff organization and its evidence that Chimpanzees have many human-like traits, click here.

The Third Department frames the issue this way: "This appeal presents the novel question of whether a chimpanzee is a 'person' entitled to the rights and protections afforded by a writ of habeas corpus." After noting that habeas procedures only protect "persons," the court finds a definition of "person" from legal scholarship and Black's Law Dictionary. But that kind of research is window dressing. There is no way the plaintiff will win this. Courts are not going to extend to animals the protections enjoyed by humans. The court notes that other courts have rejected this argument, and there is no case in favor of plaintiff's position.

Anyway, 'legal personhood has been defined in terms of both rights and duties," emphasis on the word "duties." "Associations of human beings, such as corporations and municipal entities, may be considered legal persons, because they too bear legal duties in exchange for their legal rights." So here's how the court wraps it up:

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.
So, Chimpanzees are not people for purposes of a habeas corpus petition. Like I said (and as the Third Department states in this case), corporations are treated as people under the law in certain instances. If Tommy the chimpanzee makes a campaign contribution, would he then count as a person?

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