April 21, 2015

No, chimps are not "people"; no, they should not have habeas rights

Sometimes, a chimpanzee is just a chimpanzee, per Freud.
At other times, it's a pawn in a misguided legal game.
BBC file photo from Sydney zoo.
I don't care what a New York State appeals court says, with its ruling that captive chimps should be granted habeas corpus.

For people who cite the "'personhood" of corporations, or the right to legal standing that animals can get under the Endangered Species Act? Those are both more narrow and specific than habeas corpus, which has 800 years of law behind it and is considered the touchstone of civil liberties in general.

As for why such a ruling shouldn't have been granted, writing before the initial pleading, Eric Posner explains, as part of one comment I made at this piece at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon.

Let's go to Posner, to whom Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe obviously did not listen:
The reason Tommy (a chimp in another habeas case) will lose is that the New York Legislature did not intend to encompass animals within the definition of “person” for filing a habeas petition. If lawmakers had meant to extend the writ of habeas in this way, when that had never been done before, they would have said so. If Hobby Lobby wins, on the other hand, it will be because courts think that Congress did intend to encompass for-profit corporations within the definition of “person” in providing for religious freedom. Whatever you make of these outcomes, you don’t have to worry that chimpanzees, craft stores, and zygotes will use them to conquer the planet and enslave humanity. The law does not turn something into a person by calling it one. 

I hope the New York legislature rectifies this error ASAP. 

That said, per Science and other media, it may just be that the judge has made this ruling so as to get to further hear Stony Brook's side of the case.

However — and while I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, as a journalist, I have a reasonable understanding of basic issues — I think Jaffe could have used a lesser ruling than granting habeas rights to still get Stony Brook into court to discuss this issue more. So, while I wouldn't read too too much into this ruling, I wouldn't use the phrase or idea of "don't read too much into this" as an invitation to dismiss it, either.

Edit/update: It appears this is what happened, using a legal phrase I was thinking about. Judge Jaffe did NOT grant a habeas writ. Instead, she issued a good old "show cause" order. That order requires Stony Brook to appear in court to argue why a habeas writ should not be issued.

I also find it offensive that the Nonhuman Rights Project tried to compare animal captivity to human slavery by invoking the Somerset decision in its original pleading.

And, per the last comment on the piece, NhRP isn't stopping with chimps; next, reportedly, is an elephant habeas corpus petition.


Simon said...

Oh a can of worms. Cannot speak on the approach as to whether it has legal merit but the aims are interesting. I'm somewhat conflicted, on the one had I think that the ontology of personhood is completely flawed anyway, I don't think even you and I are ontologically persons. And the related issue of how moral personhood is linked to psychological personhood throws up plenty of moral and legal inconsistencies. But overall given the cognitive similarities regarding self awareness which by many accounts is one of the key cognitive capabilities for personhood I'm happy with the ruling.

Thomas Jones said...

"The law does not turn something into a person by calling it one." Nor is that the point in my opinion. Nor is there any reason to fear that such a ruling is the start of the end of times. It will probably be overturned. Nevertheless, there are many reasons--technological, economic, scientific, and political--to believe that legal battles, particularly in the area of "living property," are inevitable and will be more broadly interpreted legalistically within the next 50 years and of course to a great extent depending on the nature and form of the governing body. These initiatives are only in an inchoate stage of development. In the next 150 years we will be engage in similar legal disputations regarding AI.

Gadfly said...

Well, to me, habeas corpus is far different than "some legal right." And, I believe that's Posner's stance, too. That's why I said I thought Judge Jaffe could have used some lower-level legal tool if she merely wanted Stony Brook in the court room.

As for AI? As I told Phillip on Massimo's piece, AI is "just around the corner," just like peaceful nuclear fusion power is "just around the corner."

As for broad vs narrow? I expect the NY Legislature will (if it's smart) redefine what habeas is, and from there, in general, rulings will become, if not more narrow, more specific.

Thomas Jones said...

You may be right considering our political climate. But habeus just provides a mean for legal relief from unlawful imprisonment. The Nonhuman Rights Project is using it as a legal stratagem in light of the unlikelihood of finding a politician crazy enough to sponsor legislation changing creating law to specifically address this issue. Consider NRP's actions as more in the nature of public relations or as a means to air this issue in the court of public opinion.