Connecticut Appellate Court Denies Habeas Relief for Elephants

by John M.  Simpson.

On August 20, 2019, a panel of the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch Appellate Court officially released a decision affirming the dismissal of an action that had been brought seeking habeas corpus relief for three elephants maintained at a zoo in Goshen, Connecticut.  Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. R. W. Commerford and Sons, Inc., No. AC 41464 (Conn. App.  Aug. 20, 2019).  The petitioner Nonhuman Rights Project sought to represent the elephants as their “next friend” seeking to vindicate what was described as the animals’ “common-law right to bodily liberty.”  The lower court dismissed the case on the grounds that petitioner lacked standing and, alternatively, that the petition was “wholly frivolous.” 

In affirming the lower court’s judgment, the Appellate Court determined that, regardless of whether, as petitioner argued, a “next friend” did not need to have a relationship with the individual for whom habeas relief is sought, petitioner did not have standing as a “next friend” because the elephants themselves did not have standing.

The Appellate Court found no basis in the common law for concluding that the writ of habeas corpus had ever been intended to be used by animals:

[A] thorough review of our common law discloses no instance in which a nonhuman animal, or a representative for that animal, has been permitted to bring a lawsuit to vindicate the animal’s own purported rights.  Instead, animals under Connecticut law, as in all other states, have generally been regarded as personal property.

Nor was there any basis for extending the common law in this case.  As the court observed, the “‘ascription of rights has historically been connected with the imposition of societal obligations and duties.'”  The elephants could not meet this requirement:

Despite the petitioner’s asseverations for why the elephants should be afforded liberty rights, it is inescapable that an elephant, or any nonhuman animal for that matter, is incapable of bearing duties and social responsibilities required by such social contract.

The expansion of existing law sought by the petition was too far:

Not only would this case require us to recognize elephants as ‘‘persons’’ for purposes of habeas corpus, this recognition essentially would require us to upend this state’s legal system to allow highly intelligent, if not all, nonhuman animals the right to bring suit in a court of law.  At this juncture, we decline to make such sweeping pronouncements when there exists so little authority for doing so.

The court also noted that there was no indication that the Connecticut Legislature, which had passed numerous statutes governing the writ, had  ever indicated any intent that it be used by or on behalf of animals.  To the contrary, the Connecticut habeas statute “unequivocally authorizes a person, not an animal, to file an application for a writ of habeas corpus in the judicial district in which that person whose custody in question is claimed to be illegally confined.”  Moreover, the definition of “person” in the Connecticut General Statutes means a human being or certain corporate or governmental entities, but makes no reference to animals.

The court summarized its holding as follows:

There are profound implications for a court to conclude that an elephant, or any nonhuman animal for that matter, is entitled to assert a claim in a court of law.  In the present case, we have little difficulty concluding that the elephants—who are incapable of bearing legal duties, submitting to societal responsibilities, or being held legally accountable for failing to uphold those duties and responsibilities—do not have standing to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus because they have no legally protected interest that possibly can be adversely affected.

The Nonhuman Rights Project lost a similar habeas case in New York brought on behalf of a chimpanzee.  In re Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 54 N.Y.S. 3d 392 (N.Y. App. Div. 2017), motion for leave to appeal denied, 31 N.Y.3d 1054 (2018).  That organization is currently pursuing another habeas petition in a New York court concerning an elephant residing at the Bronx Zoo.

The Connecticut litigation is one of several cases  that we have recently reported upon which have sought to have courts apply to animals rights that are accorded to humans.   Whether it has concerned habeas corpus rights for elephants, Freedom of Information Act Rights for Bengal tigers, rights for a horse to sue its owner or Copyright Act rights for crested macaque monkeys, these “nonhuman rights” gambits have all failed.


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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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