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Holiday Edition of Blog: Argentinian Court Grants Habeas Corpus to Orangutan

No, this is not the typical blog post on this Site.  However, it was a noteworthy issue, raising images of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ dissenting opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton, as well as an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

So, to start, an Argentinian court has granted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to a 29-year old Sumatran orangutan, named Sandra.  No, this is not a funny event, but rather one of significant interest into the sentient rights of other creatures. Recently, a New York court rejected a similar bid involving a chimpanzee.  The Argentinian Court, in Sandra’s case, noted her significant level of cognitive functioning, and ordered a publicly-run zoo to release her.  A link to The Guardian news article on the former is here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/21/orangutan-argentina-zoo-recognised-court-non-human-person.

williamodouglasSo, amidst the chuckles of some, is this opinion something of greater note — something that should be accorded greater consideration?  Perhaps.  Let’s start with Justice Douglas, and his dissent in Morton, where he argued for the legal standing of trees and inanimate objects:

The critical question of “standing” would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole – a creature of ecclesiastical law – is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases. The ordinary corporation is a “person” for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes.So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water – whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger – must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction…..The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled. That does not mean that the judiciary takes over the managerial functions from the federal agency. It merely means that before these priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard.

Perhaps they will not win. Perhaps the bulldozers of “progress” will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard?

Those who hike the Appalachian Trail into Sunfish Pond, New Jersey,  and camp or sleep there, or run the Allagash in Main, or climb the Guadlupes in West Texas, or who canoe and portage the Quetico Superior in Minnesota, certainly should have standing to defend those natural wonders before courts or agencies, though they live 3,000 miles away. Those who merely are caught up in environmental news or propaganda and flock to defend these waters or areas may be treated differently. That is why these environmental issues should be tendered by the inanimate object itself. Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which it represents will stand before the court – the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak. But those people who have so frequented the place as to know its values and wonders will be able to speak for the entire ecological community…..

That, as I see it, is the issue of “standing” in the present case and controversy.

I must confess that I have always been fascinated the Justice Douglas’ unique perspective, one that has not been seized in the 42 years since Morton was issued.

Then, of course, there is the famous case of Mr. Data in “The Measure of a Man” — an episode of Starpicard Trek:  TNG which has prominently made the rounds of law school classes and lawyers circles over the past 25 years.  A pivotal 45-second spot is presently posted on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjJN08uqt70&noredirect=1

The Star Trek case raises the same notable issues.  Is Mr. Data, the android, capable of exercising legal rights in order to resist being used for additional experimentation.  Has Data, as a machine, achieved some form of sentience so as to permit for a court’s recognition of legal identity?  Captain Picard, portrayed by the inimitable Patrick Stewart, argues “yes:”

Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time. Now sooner or later, this man [Commander Maddox] – or others like him – will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him [Commander Data] – and all who will come after him – to servitude and slavery?  Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well, there it sits! Waiting.

So, the question has now been presented, by the Argentinian Court in Sandra’s case, as to whether or not humans have evolved sufficiently in order to recognize the rights of non-human species.  Honestly, I do not know how far this might go, or whether the trial court’s decree will be reversed on appeal.  However, this could represent a notable, albeit ponderously slow evolution in the law.  Such developments could impact on so many levels outside of the instant of a single orangutan’s rights.  It could impact how we as human society develop, how we use natural resources, how we treat the environment and the non-human species that continue to inhabit it.  If nothing else, it gives us reason for pause — to think about whether there is more to our co-habitation of the Earth as being so much more than just about ourselves.


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