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Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. R.W. Commerford and Sons, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 20, 2019

NONHUMAN RIGHTS PROJECT, INC.
v.
R.W. COMMERFORD AND SONS, INC., ET AL.

          Argued April 22, 2019

         Procedural History

         Petition for a writ of habeas corpus, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Litchfield at Torrington, where the court, Bentivegna, J., rendered judgment declining to issue a writ of habeas corpus, from which the petitioner appealed to this court; thereafter, the court, Bentivegna, J., denied the petitioner's motion to reargue and for leave to amend its petition, and issued an articulation of its decision. Affirmed.

          Steven M. Wise, pro hac vice, with whom were David B. Zabel and, on the brief, Barbara M. Schellenberg, for the appellant (petitioner).

          Thomas R. Cherry filed a brief for Laurence H. Tribe as amicus curiae.

          Thomas R. Cherry filed a brief for Justin Marceau et al. as amici curiae.

          Mark A. Dubois filed a brief as amicus curiae.

          Jessica S. Rubin filed a brief for The Philosophers as amici curiae.

          Lavine, Keller and Elgo, Js.

          OPINION

          KELLER, J.

         The petitioner, Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., appeals from the judgment of the habeas court declining[1] to issue a writ of habeas corpus that it sought on behalf of three elephants, Beulah, Minnie, and Karen (elephants), who are alleged to be confined by the named respondents, R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc. (also known as the Commerford Zoo), and its president, William R. Commerford, at the Commerford Zoo in Goshen.[2] The petitioner argues that the court erred in (1) dismissing its petition for a writ of habeas corpus on the basis that it lacked standing, (2) denying its subsequent motion to amend the petition, and (3) dismissing the habeas petition on the alternative ground that it was ‘‘wholly frivolous.'' For the reasons discussed herein, we agree with the habeas court that the petitioner lacked standing.[3] Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the habeas court.

         On November 13, 2017, the petitioner filed a verified petition for a common-law writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the elephants pursuant to General Statutes § 52-466 et seq. and Practice Book § 23-21 et seq. The petitioner alleged that it is a not-for-profit corporation with a mission of changing ‘‘the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere things, which lack the capacity to possess any legal rights, to persons, who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) The petitioner alleged that the named respondents are illegally confining the elephants.

         The petition makes clear that it ‘‘challenges neither the conditions of [the elephants'] confinement nor [the] respondents' treatment of the elephants, but rather the fact of their detention itself . . . .'' It is ‘‘not seeking any right other than the common-law right to bodily liberty'' for the elephants. The petition states that determining ‘‘[w]ho is a ‘person' is the most important individual question that can come before a court, as the term person identifies those entities capable of possessing one or more legal rights. Only a ‘person' may invoke a common-law writ of habeas corpus, and the inclusion of elephants as ‘persons' for that purpose is for this court to decide.'' The petition further alleges that ‘‘[t]he expert affidavits submitted in support of [the] petition set forth the facts that demonstrate that elephants . . . are autonomous beings who live extraordinarily complex emotional, social, and intellectual lives, and who possess those complex cognitive abilities sufficient for common-law person hood and the common-law right to bodily liberty protected by the common law of habeas corpus, as a matter of common-law liberty, equality, or both.''

         On December 26, 2017, the habeas court issued a memorandum of decision. Therein, pursuant to Practice Book § 23-24 (a) (1), [4] it declined to issue a writ of habeas corpus because it concluded that the petitioner lacked standing to bring the petition on behalf of the elephants. The court concluded that the petitioner failed to satisfy next friend standing ‘‘[b]ecause the petitioner . . . failed to allege that it possesses any relationship with the elephants . . . .'' (Emphasis omitted.) Additionally, pursuant to Practice Book § 23-24 (a) (2), the court declined to issue a writ for the elephants because it concluded that the petition was wholly frivolous on its face. On January 16, ...


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