By Larry Keane
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s botched chief judge nomination process has been a blow to her first term as elected governor. It just got worse.
For the first time since governors began making the chief judge nomination in 1970, the New York Senate Judiciary Committee rejected her first nominee, Hector LaSalle, as too moderate for their liking. A full Senate vote afterwards tanked him too. As a consequence, Gov. Hochul was forced to make a second nomination, this time offering a nominee that’s a progressive favorite – New York Court of Appeals Associate Judge Rowan Wilson.
If Judge Wilson’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s the one who dissented in a 2022 New York case where he deemed Happy, a four-ton Bronx Zoo elephant, a person with rights. Who could forget such a poorly-reasoned opinion.
The anti-hunting group Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has tried several times to sue and claim Happy the Elephant isn’t truly an animal but instead is a person with “personhood” rights. The group claims Happy is being held by the Bronx Zoo against her will. In fact, Happy is a 50-year-old elephant in zookeepers’ care since 1977. She’s well-fed, bathed and watched over. Happy even has a social life with visitors and other elephants.
The NhRP just can’t take the embarrassment hint. They first sued making their case against Happy’s “detainment” to court in 2018. “She’s a depressed, screwed-up elephant,” said NhRP’s founder. The group wasted the court’s time and resources with junk lawsuits in 2018 and 2020 and both times the court rejected their claims.
Finally, an appellate court agreed with the ruling of a lower court, which brought the case to the New York Court of Appeals in 2022. Happy has remained at the Bronx Zoo this entire time.
Enter Judge Wilson
The New York Court of Appeals is the state’s highest court. They rejected by a 5-2 decision NhRP’s most recent lawsuit.
“While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote. “Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”
Other judges appeared irritated they had to waste time hearing the case yet again. Judge Jenny Rivera questioned the NhRP’s attorneys, asking, “If Happy is a person, does that mean that I couldn’t keep a dog? I mean, dogs can memorize words.”
The court’s decision was the most recent rejection of the anti-hunting group’s attempt to assign personhood to animals. Judge Rowan Wilson was among the decision’s two dissenters. He felt it was his duty to argue for NhRP.
In his dissent, Judge Wilson wrote the court had a duty “to recognize Happy’s right to petition for her liberty,” not just because “she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society.” Of course, it is people – humans – upon whom rights are conferred, not animals. People uniquely have rights in America.
That’s why Judge Wilson’s nomination to be the highest judicial official in New York is an embarrassment and should concern those who value hunting, conservation, wildlife management and animal agriculture communities.
What’s At Stake
Local media outlet WAMC described Judge Wilson’s nomination to the chief judge position, saying “New York’s chief judge is a position responsible for leading the state’s highest court and managing the judicial branch of state government.”
In nominating Judge Wilson, Gov. Hochul praised his record, stating in a press release, “Judge Wilson’s sterling record of upholding justice and fairness makes him well-suited to lead the court at this critical time.”
Given New York’s anti-hunting and antigun majorities in the state’s legislature, as well as a governor who pushes among the strictest gun control laws in the country, a chief judge who is biased to assign human rights to animals is extremely concerning.
Coincidentally, it’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who wrote the blistering rejection of the NhRP case involving Happy the Elephant, who Judge Wilson will replace if confirmed, as is expected.
If Judge DiFiore’s court had decided Happy did indeed possess personhood rights, as Judge Wilson preferred, the floodgates would fly open for future lawsuits. Animal rights groups could sue dairy cow or meat processing operations, pig and poultry growers or pheasant preserves. That would be a severe obstacle to hunters harvesting wild game for their freezers and wildlife management biologists that rely on hunting as a wildlife conservation management tool.
It’s hunters who support The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which demonstrates that when a society puts intrinsic value on wildlife, those species prosper. NhRP’s goal wasn’t to free Happy. It was to force a radical anti-hunting agenda by judicial precedent that would disenfranchise hunters – the original conservationists.
The judge who supports that effort is now nearly atop New York’s entire judicial system.
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NSSF is the trade association for the firearm industry. Its mission is to promote, protect and preserve hunting and shooting sports. Formed in 1961, NSSF has a membership of thousands of manufacturers, distributors, firearm retailers, shooting ranges, sportsmen’s organizations, and publishers nationwide. For more information, visit nssf.org