No Habeas Relief for Tommy the Chimp

People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v Lavery , ___ AD3d ___, ___ NYS2d ___, 2014 NY Slip Op 08531 [3rd Dept., 2014]

The newspapers have recently reported that an Argentinian court has extended the right to habeas corpus relief to an orangutan.
Here the Third Department rejected a similar petition to extend habeas corpus rights to a chimpanzee named Tommy, but gave it serious consideration on the merits instead of rejecting it out of hand.
The court noted that habeas relief has never been extended to non-human entities. That does not end the discussion, however, for the history of the Great Writ has been one of gradual extension of its reach, in large part due to its flexibility and the very vagueness with which it is expressed in the statute. As grounds for rejecting it in this case, the court pointed to the nature of the social contract, which balances rights against duties and responsibilities. Legal “personhood” is defined in terms of both rights and duties. Since it cannot be said that chimpanzees can bear any legal duties or be held legally accountable for their actions, it would be in the court’s view inappropriate to confer legal rights on them, such as the liberty rights which are the focus of habeas relief. To the extent that the petitioners viewed the rights governing the confinement of animals generally as inappropriate, their redress had to be through the Legislature and not habeas corpus.
The chimpanzee in question is being kept by the respondents in Fulton County. Petitioners made no claim that the conditions under which he is being kept are in violation of any laws. Indeed, the opinion is entirely silent as to what the petitioners expected to be done with Tommy had the petition been granted. Rather, petitioners asked simply to extend the definition of “personhood” to encompass an undoubtedly sentient, intelligent but non-human creature. The expert proof submitted on behalf of the petition tended to establish that chimpanzees have similar cognitive functions to humans.

Note: Sciencemag.org reports that this petition was one of three filed in the New York courts, in a coordinated effort to achieve legal personhood for chimpanzees.