The Magazine

So Three Cows Walk into Court .  .  .

Animal-rights extremism in the Obama entourage is no joke.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Recognizing that animals themselves by statute as holders of rights would mean that they could sue in their own name and in their own right. .  .  . Such animals would have what is termed legal standing. Guardians would ultimately have to be appointed to speak for these voiceless rights-holders, just as guardians are appointed today for infants, or for the profoundly retarded. .  .  . But giving animals this sort of "virtual voice" would go a long way toward strengthening the protection they will receive under existing laws and hopefully improved laws, and our constitutional history is replete with instances of such legislatively conferred standing.

But animal rights lawyers aren't waiting until the law is changed before enlisting animals as litigants. While these efforts have so far been turned back by the courts, they have received respectful hearings on appeal. In 2004, an environmental lawyer sued in the name of the "Cetacean Community"--allegedly consisting of all the world's whales, porpoises, and dolphins--seeking an injunction preventing the federal government from conducting underwater sonar tests. When a trial court found that the "Community" had no standing, the case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where anything can happen. The court refused to grant the whales and dolphins standing, but in language that must have warmed every animal liberationist's heart, it stated that theoretically, animals could attain the right to sue:

It is obvious that an animal cannot function as a plaintiff in the same manner as a juridically competent human being. But we see no reason why Article III [of the U.S. Constitution] prevents Congress from authorizing suit in the name of an animal any more than it prevents suits brought in the name of artificial persons such as corporations, partnerships or trusts, and even ships, or of juridically incompetent persons such as infants, juveniles and mental incompetents.

Of all the ubiquitous advocacy thrusts by animal rights advocates, obtaining legal standing for animals would be the most damaging--which makes Sunstein's appointment to the overseer of federal regulations so worrisome and Senator Chambliss's hold on the nomination so laudable. Chambliss plans to meet with the nominee personally "to provide him the opportunity to fully explain his views." Chambliss said:

Professor Sunstein's recommendation that animals should be permitted to bring suit against their owners with human beings as their representatives, is astounding in its display of a total lack of common sense. American farmers and ranchers would face a tremendous threat from frivolous lawsuits. Even if claims against them were found to be baseless in court, they would still bear the financial costs of reckless litigation. That's a cost that would put most family farming and ranching operations out of business.

But animal standing would do more than just plunge the entire animal industry sector into chaos. In one fell swoop, it would both undermine the status of animals as property and elevate them with the force of law toward legal personhood. On an existential level, the perceived exceptional importance of human life would suffer a staggering body blow by erasing one of the clear legal boundaries that distinguishes people from animals. This is precisely the future for which animal rights/liberationists devoutly yearn.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute. His A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy:
The Human Cost of Animal Rights
will be published in January.