Personhood can be complicated when it comes to the legal system

David Hejmanowski

December 12, 2013

What makes us human, I think, is an ability to ask questions, a consequence of our sophisticated spoken language.

—Jane Goodall

“It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he descended from man.”

—H.L. Mencken

The law is a precise beast. Where definitions are given in the statutes, they are closely followed and words are parsed for their precise meanings. In Ohio, Ohio Revised Code section 1.59 defines a person as, “an individual, corporation, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, and association.”

Legal battles over the definition of the word ‘person’ have usually been waged over the application of the word to fetuses and the degree of application to corporations. The former has obvious and major implications when it comes to lawsuits surrounding abortion laws. The legislature also has been careful how it has applied the definition in the criminal law where a pregnant woman is murdered or her baby is lost due to a criminally negligent or intentional injury.

Corporate personhood has been an issue in American jurisprudence since the early 19th Century. As noted above, Ohio law makes it very clear that corporations are people for the purposes of the legal definition of the word. Federal cases have been litigated to determine the application of various Constitutional rights as to corporate entities.

Over the past two weeks, however, several highly unusual cases were litigated in New York. They were cases in which an organization, the ‘Nonhuman Rights Project’, asked the Fulton County and Niagara County Courts in upstate New York to recognize ‘personhood’ for Chimpanzees named ‘Tommy’ and ‘Kiko’. Several days later, a similar lawsuit was filed in New York City as to two chimps who reside at Stony Brook University.

To be clear, the Nonhuman Rights Project did not file suit to challenge who owned the chimps. It did not file suit to challenge New York’s animal handling or exotic animal licensing laws. It did not file a civil suit claiming damages or seeking to force a humane society to intervene.

What the Nonhuman Rights Project filed was a writ of habeas corpus. That name comes from the Latin for “you may have the body” and has been used in England for more than 800 years to free those who are being wrongfully. It was maintained as a founding principle of American Law and the right of American citizens to seek redress through the writ is protected by Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution which states that, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

Regardless of one’s position on the issues of abortion and animal rights, the attempt to extend the definition of personhood to include non-human primates would likely be surprising on its own, but it is made even more so by the fact that the Nonhuman Rights Project specifically cited the 1772 case of James Somerset, an American slave who was freed via the writ by a British court. The Project attempts to draw direct parallels between the cases of human slaves and the New York chimpanzees and lays out, on its website, its plan to appeal the chimps’ cases to all levels of appellate courts.

By Tuesday of this week, all three New York courts had rejected the applications for the writs on the basis of the fact that New York law defines a person as a human being and, therefore, a chimp cannot be the subject of a writ of habeas corpus. The NRP promised to appeal. Moreover, the NRP states on its website that it will “file as many suits as we have the funds to be able to pursue, and in the states where we have the best chance of winning them.” They also have a stated intent to file suits as to other animals including elephants and dolphins.

The NRP is not asking state legislatures to adopt new legislation to give expanded rights to animals. They are not seeking signatures to get referenda on state ballots. They are not advocating for expanded use of existing animal protection legislation. They are, rather, explicitly asking courts to expand legal definitions beyond their given meaning and to do so by judicial fiat.

Appeals will be filed in New York and additional cases are likely to filed elsewhere. The NRP states that Ohio law “presents some potential issues with which we would not want to wrestle in one of our early suits” and so legal actions of this nature seem unlikely to come anytime soon here in the Buckeye State.

David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator at the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.