Fact Check: Does NYS chief judge nominee support elephant’s right to be released from zoo?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. This week, Governor Kathy Hochul nominated liberal Court of Appeals Judge Rowan Wilson to be chief judge of New York.

That had conservative groups looking back at the previous legal opinions of Wilson. Among the claims surfacing on social media is that Wilson once argued that elephants should have human rights.

When Governor Hochul tapped Judge Rowan Wilson to be the state’s chief judge, she called him a strong, effective and thoughtful leader. But almost immediately, the right-leaning watchdog group, Empire Center, posted a tweet saying Wilson once wrote an opinion supporting an elephant’s right to petition for release from the Bronx Zoo.

Here’s what News10NBC found.

The case revolved around an elephant named Happy. For almost 50 years, she has lived at the Bronx Zoo. A few years ago she was the subject of a lawsuit brought by an animal rights organization that challenged the elephant’s confinement and argued Happy should be able to sue under the habeas corpus rights in order to secure her transfer to a sanctuary. Habeas corpus is a legal principle that protects people against unlawful imprisonment.

By a vote of 5 to 2, the judges at the state court of appeals rejected the argument that Happy should be transferred out of the zoo, ruling that habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty of human beings. But one of the two dissenting votes came from Judge Rowan Wilson.

News10NBC located his 70-page opinion in support of Happy’s release. Wilson acknowledged that Happy is not a person (pg 4). But he argued that “Happy has very substantial cognitive, emotional and social needs and abilities” (pg 69) and said 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” (pg 70).

On whether Wilson supported Happy’s legal right to petition for release, that is a fact. Nonetheless, upon his nomination to become chief judge, Wilson received accolades and support from several legal organizations, including the New York State Bar Association, which called him brilliant, conscientious and thoughtful.