Lawyer Steve Wise works for the Nonhuman Rights Project. He has filed lawsuits seeking formal recognition that chimpanzees are “persons,” possessing legal rights to bodily liberty previously reserved for humans. The lawsuits argue that personhood derives from cognitive and emotional qualities that chimpanzees, like humans, possess in abundance.
These lawsuits are the culmination of a legal strategy developed by Wise. In his book, Though the Heavens May Fall, Wise details the legal arguments that convinced one of history’s most influential jurists, Lord Mansfield, himself a slave owner, that a runaway slave named James Somerset was a person with a right to be free.
That case and its arguments, including the legal strategy of filing a writ of habeas corpus was formative for Wise.1
In a decision in 2015, New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe ruled that two research chimps at Stony Brook University were not covered by the writ of habeas corpus. Jaffe did express some sympathy for the nonhuman rights project’s arguments. For example, she stated that something does not have to be a human being to be treated like a person in the eyes of the law, noting that corporations have been considered legal persons in some cases. She further stated “Not very long ago, only Caucasian male, property-owning citizens where entitled to the full panoply of legal rights under the United States Constitution.” She quoted this from a 2003 gay rights case, quoting Justice Anthony Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court, “Times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress.”2
1 Keim, Brandon. “A chimp’s day in court: inside the historic demand for nonhuman rights”. June 6, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com.
2 Grim, David. “Judge rules research chimps are not ‘legal persons’”. July 30, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org.