Saturday, December 6, 2014

Chimps are not persons for purposes of habeas corpus relief in New York

Source: Wikimedia Commons
... in case you were curious.  The case was brought by an attorney for the Nonhuman Rights Project.  This decision was released on Thursday by a New York appeals court:
In support, petitioner submitted the affidavits of several experts in an effort to establish that, in general, chimpanzees have attributes sufficient to consider them "persons" for the
purposes of their interest in personal autonomy and freedom from unlawful detention. Collectively, these submissions maintain that chimpanzees exhibit highly complex cognitive functions – such as autonomy, self-awareness and self-determination, among others – similar to those possessed by human beings. Following an ex parte hearing, Supreme Court found that the term "person" under CPLR article 70 did not include chimpanzees and issued a judgment refusing to sign an order to show cause. Petitioner appeals.

While petitioner proffers various justifications for affording chimpanzees, such as Tommy, the liberty rights protected by such writ, the ascription of rights has historically been connected with the imposition of societal obligations and duties. Reciprocity between rights and responsibilities stems from principles of social contract, which inspired the ideals of freedom and democracy at the core of our system of government. Under this view, society extends rights in exchange for an express or implied agreement from its members to submit to social responsibilities. In other words, "rights [are] connected to moral agency and the ability to accept societal responsibility in exchange for [those] rights.
Regrettably, the Guardian story linked above omits the context of the not-a-person decision.  At issue was only the limited right to claim habeas corpus relief as a person.  But should we want legal criteria which extend rights based solely on personhood?  I think not.  For the reasons spelled out by the judges above (among others), it makes more sense to have a sliding scale of responsibilities and protections reflecting various levels of sentience.  With a more continuous spectrum, the designation of personhood seems less fundamental and more arbitrarily semantic.  And lest we fear, the judges continue:
Our rejection of a rights paradigm for animals does not, however, leave them defenseless. The Legislature has extended significant protections to animals, subject to criminal penalties, such as prohibiting the torture or unjustifiable killing of animals (see Agriculture and Markets Law § 353), the abandonment of animals in a public place (see Agriculture and Markets Law § 355), the transportation of animals in cruel or inhuman manners (see Agriculture and Markets Law § 359 [1]) or by railroad without periodically allowing them out for rest and sustenance (see Agriculture and Markets Law § 359 [2]), and the impounding of animals and then failing to provide them sustenance (see Agriculture and Markets Law § 356). Notably, and although subject to certain express exceptions, New Yorkers may not possess primates as pets (see ECL 11-0103 [6] [e] [1]; 11-0512).  Thus, while petitioner has failed to establish that common-law relief in the nature of habeas corpus is appropriate here, it is fully able to importune the Legislature to extend further legal protections to chimpanzees.
(Note: I've deleted some citations from the above quotations for the sake of readability.  If you are bothered by that type of thing, then I'd doubly recommend reading the full decision.)