In 1510, the respected French lawyer Bartholomew Chassenée made his name by serving as legal counsel for a horde of rats. The rats stood accused of eating through the province's barley crop. But the trial was tainted, Chassenée argued, for two reasons: First, the court failed to properly notify the rodents of the trial date. And second, the defendants could not possibly appear in court when getting there entailed risking a run-in with a cat.
This scene may have taken place in Medieval Europe. But, if you believe Fox News host Glenn Beck, it could happen here too.
Beck has been monitoring the threat for quite some time. "The day may not be far off, animal lawyers say, when animals are not only present in the court room but participating in the proceedings," Beck warned on his radio program in March 2008. He reiterated his concern last Wednesday on Fox. When he was 8 years old, he said, he loved "Ben," Michael Jackson's 1972 tune about a pet rat. "But do you really want a police officer telling Ben, who's just shown up in your home, 'Ben, you have a right to remain silent. … If you can't afford an attorney, Ben, one will be provided for you'? The world is upside down!"
And it's Cass Sunstein's fault. A constitutional-law professor at Harvard University, Sunstein was confirmed Thursday as the director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or "regulatory czar." Now, according to Beck, the possibility of being dragged to animal court is even higher.
The foundation for Beck's vision of a murine judicial system is a paper Sunstein wrote in 2002, in which he argued that individuals as well as the state should be able to file suit for animal cruelty. (Read it here.) Sunstein also gave a lecture on the subject at Harvard in 2007. (Watch it here.)
Sunstein is best known for his scholarship on cost-benefit analysis in public policy as well as his work on behavioral economics—the idea that government can use incentives, or "nudges," rather than heavy-handed regulation to drive behavior. But his animal rights article, which later became the introduction to a book called Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, has received special attention.
Sunstein is now caught up in Beck's anti-czar crusade. (Never mind that czar is just a word used by the media for appointed advisers not subject to Senate approval or that, by that definition, Sunstein isn't a "czar" at all.) The Web site StopSunstein.com catalogs statements by Obama's "radical anti-hunting, anti-gun, animal rights law professor." Many attendees at Saturday's 9/12 protest in Washington echoed Beck's concerns. "He thinks rats should have the right to an attorney, to sue humans," said Davy Reeves of Kalamzaoo, Mich. "Rats have no right to live in my house."
Reeves is right about the second part. The first is a little more complicated. What Sunstein says in his 2002 paper is that state animal-cruelty laws get enforced only when a public prosecutor brings charges. And in practice, that rarely happens. To correct this "enforcement gap," he says, people should be able to file civil lawsuits to prevent cruelty to animals. "The very idea might seem absurd," he writes. "But it is simpler and more conventional than it appears." Just as a child might be represented by an adult human, so too would an animal.
Sunstein also argues that anti-cruelty laws should be applied to animals that suffer because of farming, meat-industry practices, and hunting. "We ought to ban hunting, I suggest, if there isn't a purpose other than sport and fun," he says in his 2007 lecture. "That should be against the law. It's time now."
Sunstein isn't saying that animals should be autonomous (and thus able to hire an attorney) or that an animal's life is as valuable as a human's. In fact, he rejects these arguments outright. Rather, he says, we should do everything we can to minimize animal suffering. We already have laws that make it illegal to cause distress to animals, he says. We just need to enforce them. Allowing private lawsuits on behalf of animals is one way to do that.