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Tommy the Chimpanzee’s Case Will Move to New York’s Highest Court

Tommy-cropThe New York State Appellate Court, Third Division, has issued its decision in the case of Tommy the chimpanzee, and has essentially opened the door for Tommy’s case to be taken to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The appellate court denied the appeal of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is what we expected since judicial public policy is ultimately the domain of the Court of Appeals.

The court noted that the Nonhuman Rights Project “requests that this Court enlarge the common-law definition of ‘person’ in order to afford legal rights to an animal,” but ruled that “We decline to do so.”

After carefully reading the seven-page ruling (which you can find here), the NhRP legal team concluded that the appellate court is mistaken on all three grounds on which it bases its decision. And that’s how it opens the door for us to go to the Court of Appeals on Tommy’s behalf.

* First, the court argues that no one has ever sought a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a chimpanzee or any nonhuman animal before. But that is not a reason for denying it now. The whole point of the common law is that it is flexible and can change in light of new scientific discoveries, changing experiences, and changing ideas of what is right or wrong.

They add specifically that “animals may conceivably be legal persons.”The appellate court did indeed recognize that “chimpanzees exhibit highly complex cognitive functions … similar to those possessed by human beings.” These facts alone are sufficient to establish personhood for the purpose of a writ of habeas corpus.

* Second, the Court erroneously claims that in order for Tommy to have rights he must be able to assume responsibilities. This statement contradicts a decision of the Court of Appeals of New York (Byrn v. New York City Health & Hospitals Commission Corporations, 31 N.Y.2d 194 1972). In that case, the Court of Appeals ruled that “Upon according legal personality to a thing, the law affords it the rights and privileges of a legal person.” There is no mention of responsibilities.

Indeed, both the Court of Appeals in the Byrn case and the appellate court in Tommy’s case cite a secondary source that states that there may be “systems of law in which animals have legal rights.” They add specifically that “animals may conceivably be legal persons.”

* Third, the ruling further contradicts the Court of Appeals by resting Tommy’s eligibility for legal personhood on his species. The Court of Appeals was clear that “it is a policy determination whether legal personality should attach and not a question of biological or ‘natural’ correspondence.”

All in all, then, we’re confident that we can take Tommy’s case to the highest level, New York State’s Court of Appeals. That’s where the big decision will be made – a decision that will set a precedent across the whole state.