Free Tommy! New Lawsuit Argues Chimpanzees Have Human Rights

Categories: Courts

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Photo by Thomas Lersch
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Yale law professor Jack Balkin is credited with coining the term "off the wall" legal arguments and has written how "off the wall" arguments can become accepted as mainstream or obviously correct. Some examples: it would have been "off the wall" for an antebellum Southern lawyer to argue that slaves were citizens; as late as 1990 a conservative ex-Supreme Court justice (Burger) mocked the idea of an individual right to bear arms as a "fraud"; almost no law professor took the legal challenge to Obamacare seriously until federal judges appointed by Reagan and the Bushes did.

You get the point.

Well, now we may have the latest example of an "off the wall" legal theory becoming very real: recognizing animals as having human rights. This past Monday, a non-profit group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., filed a lawsuit in New York state court asking that a chimpanzee named Tommy be freed from his current shelter.

The underlying theory is this: "Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by [the current shelter], but rather a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned."

The lawsuit, in painstaking detail, lays out the factual foundations for allowing Tommy, and chimpanzees, to be accorded the status of legal persons. Indeed, the lawsuit is much like reading a Discovery special on the human-like tendencies of chimps. If you initially scoffed at the idea of recognizing chimps as legal persons, reading the lawsuit will give you pause.

So, this lawsuit is not a joke. This is a serious legal and moral argument that has been brewing for years.

Of course to some people this is an outrage. Cass Sunstein, Obama's former regulatory czar who had written on animal rights as a scholar, came under fire from the conservative blogs as a "Raving animal rights nut."

This forum is not the place to have a serious debate -- but see here for a short primer, if you're interested, on the contours of the animal rights debate -- on the merits. The debate, though, that we will have as a society is important and interesting (cue beastiality jokes from unfunny hacks).

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