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New York Cases – Judges’ Decisions and Next Steps

By Michael Mountain

Tuesday Dec. 10th: Yesterday, we completed the first round of court proceedings on behalf of the four chimpanzees in New York State – Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo – whom we’re seeking to have released to sanctuaries.

There are three lawsuits. (Hercules and Leo are together for one of the three petitions we filed since they’re being held at the same laboratory.) These habeas corpus writs are a way of going before the court to argue that our chimpanzee plaintiffs are legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty, based on their level of complex cognition, self-awareness and autonomy, rather than simply pieces of property that can be owned, imprisoned and used for experiments.

Expanding the common law is typically left up to the higher courtsAll three lower court judges denied our petitions. This was not unexpected, however, since this is novel territory and there are no precedents on which lower court judges can rely. Expanding the common law of New York, which is what the NhRP is trying to do, is typically left up to the higher courts, in this case the Intermediate Appellate Court and New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. It’s also, in part, why we filed these first suits in New York State, which has an automatic right of appeal in habeas corpus petitions.

These cases now move on to the New York Appellate Courts.

What we were certainly hoping for was that if our petitions were denied, the rulings would be based on the judges’ views that chimpanzees cannot be considered “legal persons.” And that is indeed what happened. So the question of legal personhood is what will now be taken up in the appellate courts.

One of the judges even went out of his way to give us the tools we’ll need for an appeal. In the case of Tommy, the Hon. Joseph Sise held an hour-long hearing and asked some of the key questions that enabled us to place on the record why Tommy should be considered a “legal person” and what are the grounds for him to have the fundamental right of bodily liberty. (The transcript of the hearing is here.)

Judge Sise concluded:

“Your impassioned representations to the Court are quite impressive. The Court will not entertain the application, will not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus under Article 70 [a procedural statute]. I will be available as the judge for any other lawsuit to right any wrongs that are done to this chimpanzee because I understand what you’re saying. You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as Article 70 applies to chimpanzees.

“Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.

On Tuesday December 3rd, in the case filed in Niagara County on behalf of Kiko, the Hon. Ralph A. Boniello III scheduled a hearing for December 9th. He also allowed our attorneys to place their arguments on the record. And when he, too, denied the petition on the grounds that Kiko is not a person for purposes of habeas corpus, he stated that he did not want to be the first “to make that leap of faith.” Knowing that the case will now go to appeal, he wished the Nonhu“We didn’t expect the strong words of encouragement and support from the judges.”man Rights Project good luck.

In the case of Hercules and Leo, the judge did not hold a hearing. Instead, the Hon. W. Gerard Asher wrote a brief decision in which he denied the petition for habeas corpus on the basis, once again, that chimpanzees are not considered “legal persons.” (Judge Asher’s decision is here.)

One of our concerns was that any or all of the petitions might be denied on a point of law that we had not considered, in which case the question of whether a chimpanzee can be considered to be a “legal person” with the capacity for a legal right would never have been able to be argued at the appellate level. That didn’t happen. Nor did any of the judges consider these cases dismissible on other grounds.

Outside the Suffolk County Court on Long Island, where members of the press had gathered on Thursday, Steven M. Wise, President of the Nonhuman Rights Project said: “These were the outcomes we expected. All nonhuman animals have been legal things for centuries. That is not going to change easily.”

“What we didn’t expect, however, were the strong words of encouragement and support from the judges and their acknowledgement of the strength of our arguments. So we are now in a good position to appeal each decision to the appropriate New York Appellate Division.”

Whatever happens at this next level, this is just the beginning of a long campaign. As Attorney Wise explained, “The struggle to attain the personhood of such an extraordinarily cognitively complex nonhuman animal as a chimpanzee has barely begun.”

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