MANHATTAN (CN) – In an unprecedented hearing, a New York County Supreme Court judge grilled a state attorney about why “The Great Writ” of habeas corpus should not be expanded to include two chimpanzees at Stony Brook University.
Commenting on “scientific discoveries” about the sophistication of chimps, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe pressed a state attorney about whether this species also deserves a “right, or something short of a right, under the habeas statute.”
“Isn’t that an appropriate use of this ‘Great Writ’?” Jaffe asked a state attorney.
Never before had a court in the United States granted a hearing to determine whether any non-human primates could obtain writs of habeas corpus for being “unlawfully detained.”
Two branches of New York state’s appellate courts – the Third and Fourth Departments – already denied habeas relief to Hercules and Leo, who are being caged and studied at Stony Brook. Their lawyers nonetheless have tried brought them closer than ever before to obtaining a writ that so far has eluded them.
Steven Wise, the lead attorney for the Nonhuman Rights Project, spoke on their behalf on Wednesday morning.
For roughly one and a half hours of oral argument, spectators filling the majestic courtroom listened as Wise likened the case to habeas suits opposing American slavery, the imprisonment of Native-Americans, and the military detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
Christopher Coulston, an assistant to New York’s attorney general, bristled at these comparisons.
“This language of animals as slaves,” he said. “This is exactly what I’m talking about of the slippery slope.”
Granting habeas relief to chimps would open the proverbial “floodgates” for other challenges, he said.
Both of the parties agreed that the writ of habeas corpus has long protected non-human entities such as corporations or even a riverbank believed to be sacred to a Native-American group.
Coulston argued that the common denominator behind such uses of habeas corpus was the “social contract.”
Wise pointed out that some Guantanamo detainees have been accused of trying to destroy that contract, but they nevertheless can petition for habeas relief.
“It’s not to protect human beings,” Wise said, referring to the writ. “It’s to protect autonomy.”
Submitting more than 400 scientific articles as exhibits, Wise noted that scientists believe chimpanzees to be “extraordinarily cognitively complex.”
“One of the reasons why imprisoning a chimpanzee is at least as bad, if not worse, than imprisoning a human being is … they don’t even know why they’re there,” he said. “These are the type of things that we would only do to the worst criminals among us.”
Coulston remarked that Wise does not personally know about the conditions of Hercules and Leo’s captivity at Stony Brook.
Wise countered that lawyers for the American Anti-Slavery Society often advocated on behalf of random black people who were kidnapped off the streets of New York to be sold as slaves.
In those cases, Manhattan’s Supreme Court – then located blocks away at the Tweed Courthouse – let the attorneys pursue habeas cases, even if they had little knowledge about the victim of slavery, Wise added.
The chimpanzee’s biggest hurdle may be procedural rather than philosophical.
Reiterating the position of his court papers, Coulston argued that prior decisions by two New York appellate courts should bar the case of Hercules and Leo entirely.
Wise believed that neither of these cases should bind Judge Jaffe because they did not involve “settled principles of law and legal issues.”
Now appealing both of those cases, Wise believes that these decisions conflict with a higher court’s ruling in the case of Byrn v. New York Health & Hospitals Corp., involving an attempt to grant personhood rights to an unborn fetus.
New York’s Court of Appeals held in that case that “personhood” is a matter of public policy and not biology, Wise said.
Strengthening autonomy protections is a public policy interest for human New Yorkers, he added.
Urging the judge to let the legislature make these decisions, Coulston emphasized that no U.S. court ever granted this relief.
Wise responded that there was a simple reason for this.
“Before the Nonhuman Rights Project started filing these suits, nobody had ever asked,” he said.
Adjourning without issuing a ruling, Jaffe thanked the lawyers for their “extremely interesting and well-argued” commentary.
With dozens of TV, print and radio reporters surrounding him outside the courthouse, Wise defended the slavery analogies that he made as appropriate for describing Hercules and Leo, who are being “kept in a cage” and “told to do what [their] master tells [them] to do.”
“I don’t see any fair way of describing that, except as slaves,” he said.
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