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Federal Judge Allows Nonhuman Rights Project To Appear As Friend Of The Court In Peta V. Seaworld

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CORAL SPRINGS, Florida -- Over the objections of both PETA and SeaWorld, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey T. Miller granted a request by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to appear as an amicus curiae, or "Friend of the Court," in the case PETA filed on behalf of five orcas against SeaWorld. The NhRP had not sought to appear as an amicus on behalf of either PETA or SeaWorld, but solely to assist the Court in understanding certain issues that were raised within the context of this litigation and to further the interests of the orcas.

PETA's lawsuit alleged that SeaWorld is keeping the orcas in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. SeaWorld responded by moving to dismiss the case. The motion is set for oral argument on February 6th.

Of the amicus memorandum, NhRP President Steven M. Wise said, "Our purpose is to ensure that the orcas' best interests are being properly represented, that their legal status is advanced, and that an unfavorable ruling inflicts the least possible harm on the development of an animal rights jurisprudence."

While the NhRP sympathizes with PETA's claims that these orcas are enslaved, in the usual meaning of that word, it believes that PETA's claim that the orcas are enslaved within the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment is dangerously premature and that a decision on the merits will damage future animal rights law cases.

"SeaWorld opposes our request to appear as an amicus because it is confident the Court will rule the orcas are not slaves under the Thirteenth Amendment. PETA apparently opposes our request because it wants the case to 'go down in history as the first time that a U.S. court considers constitutional rights for animals.' Winning is beside the point. But losing this case will neither help these orcas nor further any long-term strategy for creating a viable animal rights jurisprudence," Wise said.

Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe once observed that a chimpanzee held at Yerkes National Primate Research Center was "clearly enslaved." But Professor Tribe continued that, "I am not suggesting that today's judges would so read the Thirteenth Amendment."

The NhRP agrees.

The amicus memorandum asserts that, whenever possible, federal courts are required to decide cases on a narrow procedural ground, such as the capacity to sue, rather than the kind of novel constitutional claim presented by PETA. Since the orcas were captured in and forcibly removed from the coastal waters of British Columbia and Iceland, those countries remain their legal domicile. The capacity of these orcas to sue should therefore be decided according to the laws of these foreign jurisdictions. Only if the Court finds the orcas have the capacity to sue under the laws of Iceland or British Columbia should it reach the issue of whether the orcas are slaves within the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment.

A copy of the Amicus Curiae Memorandum from the Nonhuman Rights Project is here (pdf). The order granting the Motion (pdf) is here.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is a project of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, Inc., a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

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