“The problem with animal rights claims in American courts is always standing,” Molly Peterson writes in her blog. “Courts are for laws; laws are for people. Animals might have ethical rights; those rights have little-to-nothing to do with human laws.”
Peterson is commenting on the suit filed by the animal rights group PETA on behalf of a group of killer whales, claiming that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids their enslavement.
She notes that legal experts give this suit a slim chance of going anywhere because of standing. At the Nonhuman Rights Project, we give it none. But the issue has nothing to do with standing and everything to do with the orcas’ capacity to possess any rights at all, including the right to sue and the constitutional right not to be enslaved.
Peterson’s blog post illustrates a common confusion between capacity to have any legal right, or legal personhood, and standing. Legal personhood is the capacity to possess a legal right. The capacity to sue is one such right, and an important one. If a party lacks the capacity to sue, it cannot sue, though a third party may sometimes sue on its behalf. Similarly, only a legal person can have rights under the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. On the other hand, standing requires that a plaintiff sustain an injury the defendant caused and that a court can fix.
The Nonhuman Rights Project is focused on breaking through the centuries-old barrier to legal personhood for nonhuman animals and establishing first, that an animal, such as an orca, has the capacity to possess any legal rights, and second, that this animal should possess appropriate fundamental rights.