The other day I was listening to talk radio as I returned from covering one of the many events on my watch in Mount Airy. The host was talking about the New York Supreme Court’s denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Habeas corpus actions are often heard by courts in the United States. The legal instrument, which we adopted from British common law, is used to free folks who are wrongfully detained.
This habeas corpus issue was different than most, however. It wasn’t an attempt to free a person who was wrongfully imprisoned or a terrorist that hadn’t been brought to trial. Instead, this action sought to free two souls being held, presumably, against their will at a laboratory in New York.
I’ve often argued that habeas corpus shouldn’t apply to some people. For instance, a terrorist at Guantanamo Bay is neither a uniformed enemy combatant nor, in most cases, a United States citizen. Thus, there is no precedent with which a court should afford that terrorist any rights.
This case of two beings held against their will wasn’t involving terrorists though. The two souls had been a part of no crime and thus had no pending charges against them.
You might be asking “how could two people be held against their will at a laboratory?” The answer is simple — they aren’t people.
The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a request for a writ of habeas corpus that would free two chimpanzees from the Stony Brook University laboratory. If you are thinking that this is the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, you are probably right.
It seems that poor Hercules and Leo have been held against their will at the lab since 2010, as researchers use them in studies regarding primate locomotion. The Nonhuman Rights Project sought to remove the two male chimps from the university’s custody and send them to a sanctuary in Florida.
New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe issued her opinion on the case last Thursday. One would think that it would have been short, sweet and to the point — something like “They’re chimps. Go find something better to do with your time.”
However, Jaffe’s opinion was 33 pages explaining how she couldn’t free the chimps because she is bound by legal precedent. Jaffe’s opinion makes it pretty clear that the justice, if not bound by legal precedent, would have extended the rights of people to our hairy, banana-eating friends.
“’Legal personhood’ is not necessarily synonymous with being human…rather, the parameters of legal personhood have been and will continue to be discussed and debated by legal theorists, commentators and courts and will not be focused on semantics or biology, even philosophy, but on the proper allocation of rights under the law, asking, in effect, who counts under our law,” wrote Jaffe.
The way I discern that statement is that Jaffe really believes that animals might one day have the same rights of human beings. Perhaps, this is good. A few million chimpanzees may add a breath of wisdom and intelligence to our voting ranks.
“Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; some day they may even succeed,” wrote Jaffe, concluding that, “for now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound it is hereby ordered that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied.”
Sometimes I look at things that are going on in our world and shake my head. This one, however, deserves at least two shakes. Is hearing a case about freeing two chimps really a good use of New York tax dollars? Probably not.
This justice spent hours on top of hours preparing an opinion about chimps. This probably happened while innocent PEOPLE sat in jail waiting for Jaffe and her colleagues to hear their cases.
I’m also concerned about this for selfish reasons. My eight-year-old beagle has been my companion in life for some time now. She seems content sleeping away 23 hours each day under an end table she has claimed as her own. However, what if she’s not happy?
What if Good Girl decides one day that I’m not giving her enough Beggin Strips? Will I become the respondent in a habeas corpus action? Though I’m sure I can out-litigate Good Girl, I’m not sure our relationship could withstand the stress of a Supreme Court case that pits us against each other.
I sure hope Good Girl is happy, and that once she gains her rights of “personhood” I don’t have to square off against her in a courtroom.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.