April 22, 2015
Judge Almost Gives Two Chimpanzees Legal Rights: 'One Step In A Long Struggle'

On Monday, Justice Barbara Jaffe of the New York Supreme Court gave legal rights to two chimpanzees, then took them back. The judge initially wrote the words "writ of habeas corpus" in a court order, implying the chimps had "legal person" status to challenge their detainment as unlawful. Supporters celebrated the decision before the judge struck out the words. Still, the great apes will receive their day in court, metaphorically speaking.

The Guardian reports two chimpanzees, named Hercules and Leo, are fighting to get out of medical experiments in Stony Brook University on Long Island and resettle in a Florida animal sanctuary. Attorneys at the Nonhuman Rights Project filed the case in December, 2013.

The chimps, defended by human attorneys, won a major victory when the judge granted a "writ of habeas corpus," which will force the president of Stony Brook to come to court and defend the detainment. The ruling had the chimps' supporters cautiously optimistic.

Lead attorney Steven Wise said, "This is one step in a long, long struggle."

"She never says explicitly that our non-human plaintiffs were persons but by issuing the order [habeas corpus] … she's either saying implicitly that they are or that they certainly can be. So that's the first time that has happened."
He added, "It feels great. We knew it was going to happen sometime."

The party didn't last long. The judge quickly erased the chimpanzees legal rights and a spokesman denied she ever meant to imply personhood.

Whether or not they are persons with legal rights aside, the order will still stand, and the university will have to defend the detainment, which is an opportunity the Nonhuman Rights Project welcomes. Science reports the group gave a new statement on the amended order.

"This case is one of a trio of cases that the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought in an attempt to free chimpanzees imprisoned within the State of New York through an 'Article 70-Habeas Corpus' proceeding. These cases are novel and this is the first time that an Order to Show Cause has issued. We are grateful for an opportunity to litigate the issue of the freedom of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, at the ordered May hearing."
As for the university, they issued a statement saying they do not comment on pending litigation. The judge's order is also largely administrative and does not show any leaning the court might take during the May hearing.

What implications legal rights for chimpanzees would have had for the U.S. legal system could have been interesting, but just getting a chance at freedom will likely be good enough for Leo and Hercules.

[Image Credit: Getty Images]