“Rhetorical Flourishes” in Opinion Come Back to Bite Court

Bush sued by whales

George W. Bush -- Sued by whales.

Lawhaha.com obviously has great fondness for judges who liven up their opinions with humor and other writing spice, but a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit shows why judges need to exercise care in stirring in these ingredients.

In a suit brought against George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of all whales, dolphins, and porpoises, the Ninth Circuit had to decide whether animals have standing to sue on their own behalf under the Endangered Species Act and other federal statutes.

The plaintiff was “the Cetacean Community,” a name chosen by the Cetaceans’ self-appointed attorney for all of the world’s whales, porpoises, and dolphins. The Cetaceans challenged the U.S. Navy’s use of low frequency sonar used to detect enemy submarines because the sonar harms marine life.

Bush and Rumsfeld moved to dismiss on the ground that the animals lacked standing to bring suit. The district court agreed and dismissed the action.

The animals appealed, relying on a statement made in a previous environmental case—Palila v. Hawaii Dep’t of Land and Natural Resources—in which the Ninth Circuit had indicated that an endangered member of the honeycreeper family, the Hawaiian Palila bird, had standing to sue on its own behalf. The specific language was that the bird “has legal status and wings its way into federal court as a plaintiff in its own right.”

The court had to decide whether the Palila language was binding precedent or only loose dicta. It ruled it was the latter, calling the statements “little more than rhetorical flourishes.”

With respect to the substantive issue, the court added that “It is obvious that an animal cannot function as a plaintiff in the same manner as a juridically competent human being.” Hmm, perfect entry for making a political joke about one of the defendants, but we try to stay apolitical.

The fact that courts have held monkeys, whales, and assumely all other non-human species (along with their human champions) lack standing to seek protection from the judicial system raises a troubling question: Who’s left to look out for them?

Cetacean Cmty. v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004). Thanks to Daniel Green.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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