Standing Up for Animals

Posted by Carter Dillard, ALDF's Director of Litigation on June 27, 2011

Last week, the Animal Legal Defense Fund moved for permission to appear as amicus in the case of Stray From The Heart v. City of New York, a case in which the City of New York thumbed its nose at its legal obligations under the Animal Shelters and Sterilization Act. The Appellate Division, First Department, held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit because they voluntarily chose to incur the costs of protecting animals. While the rationale of the Appellate Division is objectionable, it is not surprising. Courts more often than not close the courtroom doors to those who wish to protect animals by narrowly interpreting the doctrine of standing, which is concerned with whether or not the legal dispute is important enough to warrant the courts’ time and attention.

Constitutionally, standing rules exist to create a balance. In our system of government we need to limit the courts’ purview to deciding legal disputes, what the U.S. Constitution calls “cases and controversies,” rather than having them create or enforce the law. But standing limits must also respect the constitutional right of all citizens to “redress of their grievances.” It is important that courts not do what legislatures and executives are elected to do, but our society does not function if citizens cannot go to court, and are instead forced to go outside of the law to settle their differences.

In theory it seems easy enough to strike a balance, but in reality there are many variables at play. First, courts are faced with a moral hazard. By setting precedent on standing, judges determine how many cases reach their courts. By deciding that whole classes of litigants – like animal protectionists – lack standing, courts can reduce their workload. Secondly, like all elected or appointed officials with finite terms, courts are subject to political influence, and animals (unlike factory farmers, biomedical profiteers, and puppy mill operators) don’t vote. These factors make ensuring access to justice for animals and their relatively politically impotent protectors, via a broad reading of standing, less appealing.

But if anything, I would argue, courts should be more willing to hear animal cases. Courts exist in our system as bastions against political influence, and to the extent the victims of injustice lack that influence, it is the courts’ duty to protect them. If a legislature has been progressive and brave enough to pass a law protecting animals’ interest over the interests of human voters, the courts – as relatively insulated bodies – should be the last branch of government to throw the animals’ chance at justice away. Courts should also consider the relative moral weight of animal cases. Many of the cases clogging the court system today involve wealthy corporation X suing wealthy corporation Y over who will be made slightly more wealthy. At the end of the day, is that really more important, more of a “case or controversy,” than the intense suffering of billions of animals? Courts have held that it is. I leave the reader to judge the wisdom of that.

Judges closing the courtroom doors to animal protectors has other consequences. As a lawyer I am often approached by animal lovers who have clear evidence of animals being abused in violation of the law and wish to take legal action. But because courts have narrowed the doctrine of standing as it relates to animals, I often tell those who approach me that they have no legal options. They may then choose to act outside of the law, further eroding the integrity of the system. With animal abusers constantly beating the drum about the grave threat of animal right terrorists, one would think judges would be willing to hear more animal cases! Again, no society functions if citizens have to go outside of the law to settle their differences.

The development of standing as a legal doctrine, and its application to animals, have massive consequences – not just for animals who are suffering, but for the integrity of the justice system more broadly. If courts are best suited to protect the weak against the powerful, judges will be hard pressed to find better cases.


One thought on “Standing Up for Animals

  1. Patrice says:

    I love this lawyer’s philosophical position, and hopefully this can become a precedent (if I am understanding this correctly). The fact that I do not understand the letter of the law in this context (of standing) belies the fact that the human race has become so repressed by its own prejudices, its own arrogance; and unfortunately those most affected by such self appointed superiority are the weakest and the voiceless, such as our animals. I applaud the efforts made by the lawyer here, and only as an outsider with no idea about the law, can say that time is on the side of those who persist. Never give up pushing for further rights for animals; eventually more people will listen and catch on. Who knows, maybe one day a sympathetic judge will listen more closely and understand that in order to improve our human race, our societies, we must protecting all who live in them, alongside humans; not just those who can show precedent or financial incentives. Great topic!