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Laurence Tribe Supports Elephant Rights Case

By Lauren Choplin

World-renowned legal scholar and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe has requested leave to file an amicus brief in support of a habeas corpus petition filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of an elephant held alone in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.

“Happy is an autonomous and sentient Asian elephant who evolved to lead a physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially complex life,” Professor Tribe writes. “Every day for forty years, her imprisonment by the Bronx Zoo has deprived her of this life.”

Professor Tribe’s brief addresses the NhRP’s recent appeal in Happy’s case, which seeks her release to an elephant sanctuary and her legal transformation from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with the fundamental right to liberty protected by the common law writ of habeas corpus.

In his brief, Professor Tribe urges the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department to reject the “arbitrary” and “unsustainable” appellate decisions issued in the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases. Earlier this year, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt wrote that while she “agrees [with the NhRP] that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property … and may be entitled to liberty,” she was required to dismiss Happy’s habeas petition because “regrettably … this Court is bound by the legal precedent set by the Appellate Division when it held that animals are not ‘persons’ entitled to rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus.”

The appellate decisions in those cases, Professor Tribe argues, “rest on the manifestly unjust and myopic premise that human beings are the only species entitled to legal personhood and therefore the only beings on earth capable of possessing legal rights. These decisions run counter to New York’s common law of habeas corpus, which has a noble tradition of expanding the ranks of rights holders.”

As lauded by Professor Tribe in his brief, “the trial courts of New York have now twice taken the monumental first step of granting a habeas corpus hearing to a nonhuman animal” in the NhRP’s chimpanzee and elephant rights litigation. In considering the NhRP’s arguments on appeal in Happy’s case, the First Department now has the “unique opportunity” to correct its own errors of law and those of the Third Department and recognize Happy’s personhood and right to liberty. If it fails to do so and repeats these errors, “the evolution of common law writs like habeas corpus will remain chained to the prejudices and presumptions of the past and will lose their vital and rightly celebrated capacity to nudge societies toward more embracing visions of justice.”

Laurence H. Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University and Professor of Constitutional Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School. Action on the brief is expected in the next four to six weeks.

For a detailed timeline of Happy’s case and court filings, visit this page. For more information about Happy’s appeal, visit this page. 

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