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Legal Persons Capable of “Rights or Duties,” Not “Rights and Duties”

By Elizabeth Stein

Today, NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider sent¬†a letter to Bryan Garner‚ÄĒthe editor-in-chief of¬†Black‚Äôs Law Dictionary and a noted commentator on legal language‚ÄĒto¬†urge him to correct a serious decades-old error that NhRP volunteer attorney Spencer Lo discovered in the publication‚Äôs definition of a legal person. The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department relied on this erroneous¬†definition when it ruled in Dec. of 2014 that Tommy is not a legal person with fundamental rights because ‚Äúunlike human beings, chimpanzees can‚Äôt bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities, or be held legally accountable for their actions.‚ÄĚ

Duties not a precondition for rights

A source that Black‚Äôs Law Dictionary‚ÄĒthe most widely used legal dictionary in the US‚ÄĒcites to formulate this definition actually says that a ‚Äúperson‚ÄĚ may be the subject of rights or duties, not rights and duties.

While chimpanzees routinely bear duties within their own communities and in interactions with humans, the capacity to bear duties is not a precondition for legal personhood, as we have repeatedly emphasized and as Black’s Law Dictionary’s supporting source confirms.

Notifying the court

In addition to sending a letter to Garner, Kevin delivered a letter to the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department on March 27th on behalf of Tommy and Kiko (whose appeals were argued on March 16th and are now pending). In it, we make the Court aware of this error in Black’s Law Dictionary and ask them to also consider two other recent developments we didn’t have the opportunity to address during oral argument: a ruling that recognizes the fundamental rights of two rivers in India and an article about the NhRP’s litigation published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

On March 20th, in¬†Salim v. State of Uttarakhand & Others,¬†an Indian high court recognized two rivers as ‚Äúliving entities‚ÄĚ with fundamental legal rights. Kevin explains the importance of this ruling and how it supports the NhRP‚Äôs legal arguments in a March 28th¬†blog post.

In the Winter 2017 issue of the¬†Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Craig Ewasiuk argues that in its ruling in Tommy‚Äôs case, ‚Äúthe New York State Appellate Division, and the authorities relied on by the court, were wrong in claiming that modern social contract theory precludes granting legal rights to animals because the capacity for assuming duties is a precondition for being granted rights.‚ÄĚ You can read and download the article here.

Why these letters matter

The Court granted our request to submit post-argument citations as specified in our letter and asked us to provide five copies of the letter and of the ruling in the Indian high court case mentioned above, presumably so that each judge who heard our appeal would have a copy.

The NhRP will leave no stone unturned when it comes to advocating on behalf of our current chimpanzee clients and whomever we may represent in the future.

Thanks in part to the NhRP’s efforts, the conversation about real rights for nonhuman animals is rapidly evolving. The law is beginning to change around the world and we have a responsibility to keep abreast of every development that may impact our fight for rights on behalf of nonhuman animals.

We will continue to carefully examine every legal argument put in our path. And as we demonstrated to the Court in our letter, our determination and commitment have resulted in the discovery of a serious legal error that not only negatively impacted our cases on behalf of our chimpanzee plaintiffs, but also, if left uncorrected, may harm human beings as well.

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