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Chimpanzee Denied Habeas Relief by N.Y. Appellate Court

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on December 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In October, the Nonhuman Rights Project, a legal advocacy group for chimpanzees, argued that a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy should be recognized as a "person" under New York law and granted a writ of habeas corpus.

Chimps, the group argued in a 65-page brief submitted to the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division last March, share genetic information as well as cognitive skills with humans. They understand language and use tools. Chimps trained in American Sign Language can even teach other chimps how to sign. For all these reasons and more, the Nonhuman Rights Project argued that Tommy should be released from his cage.

Dawn of the Precedent of the Apes

A five-judge panel of the Supreme Court Appellate Division disagreed. In a ruling issued Thursday, the court denied the petitioners' request for a writ of habeas corpus. The court did engage in a serious discussion of the issue, however, and didn't dismiss it outright. Noting that the state legislature hasn't defined the term "person," the court went back to common law -- and the origin of the writ of habeas corpus, as well -- to figure out who's entitled to it.

As you might guess, a trip down memory lane didn't help much. "Petitioner does not cite any precedent -- and there appears to be none -- in state law, or under English common law, that an animal could be considered a 'person' for the purposes of common-law habeas corpus relief. In fact, habeas corpus relief has never been provided to any nonhuman entity," the court wrote.

What Makes a Human?

To its credit, though, the court said this "lack of precedent" wasn't the end of the matter. Things got a little more philosophical as the court examined the underpinnings of law and society, finding that "rights [are] connected to moral agency and the ability to accept societal responsibility in exchange for [those] rights." Society give rights to people, but it also expects things of them.

The dispositive question, then, is whether chimps can "submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions." No, the court said, because chimps have no duties or responsibilities, they don't get rights. (In a footnote, the court addresses the problem you're thinking about right now, which is that not all humans are equally capable of exercising rights and responsibilities. The court said it's not about the individual's ability to exercise rights, but the ability of the species as a whole to do so; "it is undeniable that, collectively, human beings possess the unique ability to bear legal responsibility.")

While denying the human-only right to a writ of habeas corpus, the court emphasized that humans can create, and have created, legal protections for animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project "is fully able to importune the Legislature to extend further legal protections to chimpanzees."

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