Should trees, parks, rivers, whales, corporations have standing?

[ by Charles Cameron — and what about straw men & sovereign citizens? ]

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Tablet DQ Trees standing

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I have long appreciated Mr Justice Douglas‘ dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), and Christopher Stone‘s comment on the same, Should Trees Have Standing? — presented along with other essays in Stone’s book of the same name [upper panel, above].

That takes care of the trees in my title. Parks and rivers are covered by the New York Times piece today, In New Zealand, Lands and Rivers Can Be People (Legally Speaking).

Whales and apes get added to our list, as you can see, in Brighter Green‘s Nature’s Rights: Rivers, Trees, Whales, and Apes — which mentions that under Ecuador’s constitution enshrining the legal rights of nature as a whole::

Ecuador stepped to the forefront of the nature’s rights movement when it became the first country to include the rights of Mother Earth (Pachamama) in its constitution, which was ratified in 2008. The document states, “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and its processes in evolution.” Nature is a “rights-bearing entity that should be treated with parity under the law.” Citizens are given the power to sue on behalf of nature, now a legal entity

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And corporations?

The irony here, of course, is that those who would like to see Nature get a word in edgewise in the courts as a legal Person, tend to be unhappy with corporations having the same rights as chimpanzees. Eric Posner in Slate, Stop Fussing Over Personhood, catches the irony nicely:

From a legal standpoint, there is nothing remarkable about a chimpanzee claiming to be a person. Indeed, there are a number of cases that have been brought by animals—including a palila, a marbled murrelet, and a spotted owl. All of these animals sought to enforce their rights under the Endangered Species Act, under a provision that gives “persons” the right to bring suit.

In none of these cases was a judge fooled into thinking that an animal possesses all the rights of human beings. The lawyers bringing them were simply ensuring that a judicial remedy was available to address the harm that Congress sought to fix. If the spotted owl had also asked for the right to vote, the request would have been denied. A judge wouldn’t give a hoot that an earlier court had deemed the owl a “person” under the Endangered Species Act. A person for one legal purpose is not necessarily a person for another.

The law also treats various nonhuman, nonsentient entities as “persons” for certain legal purposes. Corporations, estates, trusts, partnerships, and government entities are often defined this way. Walmart, Illinois, and the California Pension Fund can sue, for example, without anyone asking if they have a right to abortion.

The classic case here is the famous and infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here also the curious notions of personhood invoked by members of the Sovereign Citizens movement. From JM Berger‘s recent report, Without Prejudice: What Sovereign Citizens Believe:

Fictitious Person

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