Sunstein idea may become practice, giving animals their day in court


What was once an obscure idea hidden in the introduction to an edited volume of scholarly work burst onto the political scene last fall, when the Senate held confirmation hearings for Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein ’78, nominated to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Opponents on both the left and the right scoured the prolific scholar’s writing for ammunition, and the appointment was temporarily blocked by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) after his discovery of a proposal by Sunstein and then-partner Martha Nussbaum, the University of Chicago philosopher, to give animals legal standing to appear in court when humans could not formally do so on their behalf.

A variant of that idea has proven somewhat less controversial in Switzerland, however, where a proposal to initiate criminal prosecutions on behalf of animal victims is going before voters in a referendum on March 7, the Associated Press reports. Brought by animal rights group Swiss Animal Protection, the referendum, if passed, would force each of Switzerland’s cantons to appoint a public prosecutor to go after human mistreatment of animals.

The country has a history of putting contentious measures up for public votes. Several months ago, Swiss voters controversially approved a ban on the construction of minarets.

Currently, the Alpine nation boasts Europe’s only animal lawyer, Antoine F. Goetschal, who represents 150-200 creatures a year as an employee of the prosecutor’s office in Zurich (for the privilege, he is paid 200 Swiss francs, or $185, an hour). He told the AP that the new measure would represent the next logical step in the evolution of Switzerland’s animal rights law, which recently prohibited keeping pigs in a single cage – what the lawyer calls “solitary confinement” – and which will prevent Swiss horse owners from tying up their animals in stalls by 2013. Goetschal was famously involved in a recent case in which authorities accused a fisherman of torturing a pike because he struggled for ten minutes to haul it out of the water (he concedes it is not the best example of such prosecutions, and does not plan an appeal the loss).

Potentially affected portions of Swiss society appear divided over the proposed law. The Swiss Farming Association opposes it; the president of a dog breeding association seemed supportive. One thing is certain: no matter the outcome, the seriousness with which Switzerland is treating the referendum means that Sunstein, who was confirmed as head of OIRA, will have the last laugh on this issue.

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