Update on the Legal Personhood of Non-Human Animals

In Legal Personhood #8: AnimalsDr Steven Tudor examined whether legal personhood can be extended to non-human animals. Here, Steven provides an update on the US chimps case, which was decided by the New York County Supreme Court last month.

On 29 July 2015, New York County Supreme Court Justice Jaffe handed down her decision on the question of the lawfulness of the captivity of Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees kept by Stony Brook University for research purposes. Animal rights activists had filed a writ of habeas corpus, which required the university to justify the detention of the two chimps.

In her judgment, Justice Jaffe ultimately denied the writ. This means that Hercules and Leo will, for now, remain in the custody of the university. Her Honour said she was bound by precedent in the matter. However, the Nonhuman Rights Project, which brought the action on Hercules and Leo’s behalf, took some comfort from the judgment because on many issues the judgment was sympathetic to their argument. In her concluding paragraph, Justice Jaffe wrote:

Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; some day they may even succeed. Courts, however, are slow to embrace change, and occasionally seem reluctant to engage in broader, more inclusive interpretations of the law, if only to the modest extent of affording them greater consideration. As Justice Kennedy aptly observed in Lawrence v. Texas [a 2003 gay rights decision striking struck down a state sodomy statute], albeit in a different context, “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress” [citation omitted]. The pace may now be accelerating.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, in an article on the judgment on its website, state that, while it finds much of value in the judge’s reasons for her decision, it intends to appeal her denial of the petition for habeas corpus. It is likely that some of the arguments the Nonhuman Rights Project will use in the appeal will draw upon the reasoning in Justice Jaffe’s own judgment. (See also an article on the judgment on Slate.)

Suggested Citation

Steven Tudor, ‘Update on the Legal Personhood of Non-Human Animals’, Law and Justice, 12 August 2015 (La Trobe Law School Blog, http://law.blogs.latrobe.edu.au/)

Marc Trabsky