Saturday, July 24, 2021

Who Can Sue?

Lawsuits Aren't Limited to Humans
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, July 24, 2021, p. 5A

Who Can Sue?

What if democracy could, to quote former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “sue for its own preservation?”

Stick with me. This is a short column. The idea’s not as crazy as it may first sound.

Lawyers file lawsuits.

Most of their clients are adult people, specifically Homo sapiens – a species in which lawyers also claim membership.

But not all clients are people.

The creative minds of Roman lawyers, 40 or 50 years before Christ would have had an opportunity to stop them, conceived and gave birth to one of today’s lawyers’ most lucrative source of clients: “corporations.”

You can’t invite one to dinner. They’re only figments of lawyers’ imaginations, nonhuman, and occasionally inhuman.

Yet the nine Supremes invite these zombies into their Court and treat them as legal persons. The Court’s even ruled corporations’ political contributions can metamorphose into First Amendment-protected “speech.”

Admiralty law, from Roman times to the present, treats ships as legal persons.

Young children, unlikely to contact lawyers, are legal persons.

Zoologists classify us as mammals – in a sub-group identified as the Great Apes. So it’s only logical that other species, despite animals’ apprehension regarding lawyers, have been granted legal person status.

The Iowa Code, Section 717B.3, gives animals the legal right to good nutrition; plenty of clean water; sanitary conditions; a shelter with bedding and protection from wind, rain, snow sun, cold and dampness; and. professional healthcare.

That list would be a good starting place for what we should guarantee our species – and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights agrees.

While clerking for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black I learned of Justice Douglas’ love of nature from conversation, his books and short group walks along the C & O Canal. Years later he advanced the notion of environmental personhood in his opinion in the Sierra Club case, citing Christopher D. Stone’s article (now book), Should Trees Have Standing?--Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, a law review article of mine, and many other sources. (Photo credit: trees and lake,

Noting that corporations and ships get legal person status he argued that “environmental objects” should receive no less. They should be able to “sue for their own preservation.”

Why not? If lawyers can create corporate legal persons out of vapor why not our more tangible bodies of water? Two rivers in India, a mountain and river in New Zealand, and more in Bolivia, Columbia and Ecuador enjoy environmental personhood.

Iowa, of all states, has an economic as well as moral interest in giving our land, rivers and lakes the right to “sue for their own preservation.”

How about our “democracy”? It’s more real and deserving of the legal right to protect itself than corporations. It requires educated citizens with voting rights, and judges and journalists with independence and integrity. Refusals to accept election results, cutting schools’ budgets, or saying media are “the enemy of the people” are attacks on democracy itself.

It’s long past time we grant democracy the right to “sue for its own preservation.”
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, is the author of Columns of Democracy.
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Corporations; history; 44-49 BC. Corporation, https://

Corporation as “citizen” of state. Louisville, C. & C.R. Co. v. Letson, 43 U.S. 497 (1844), https://

Corporations; entitled to political participation. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S 310 (2010), Wikipedia,

Corporations as inhumane. “2005 List: the 14 Worst Corporate Evildoers,” Global Exchange, International Labor Rights Forum, Dec. 12, 2005,

Other legal persons. U.S. government, U.S. v. The Cooper Corp., 312 U.S. 600 (1941); counties . Counties, Cook County v. U.S. ex rel Chandler, 538 U.S. 119 (2003)

Admiralty law. Nicholas Joseph Healy, “Maritime law,” Britannica, (“[T]he most distinctive feature of admiralty practice is the proceeding in rem, against maritime property, that is, a vessel …. Under American maritime law, the ship is personified to the extent that it may sometimes be held responsible under circumstances in which the shipowner himself is under no liability.)

Children’s legal rights. “What Are the Legal Rights of Children?” Findlaw, March 18, 2019, (“children are entitled to a safe environment, good nutrition, healthcare, and education. Although parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, if a child is not safe, the state will remove the children from their home. Parents are required to meet the child's basic needs.”)

Humans are mammals, Great Apes. Beth Blaxland, “Humans are mammals,” Australian Museum, Oct. 22, 2020, https:// (“Humans are also classified within: the subgroup of mammals called primates; and the subgroup of primates called apes and in particular the 'Great Apes'”)

Zoologists. “Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists,” Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Animals legal rights. Iowa Code Section 717B.3 (1) (a)-(f). a. Access to food in an amount and quality reasonably sufficient to satisfy the animal’s basic nutrition level to the extent that the animal’s health or life is endangered. b. Access to a supply of potable water in an amount reasonably sufficient to satisfy the animal’s basic hydration level to the extent that the animal’s health or life is endangered. Access to snow or ice does not satisfy this requirement. c. Sanitary conditions free from excessive animal waste or the overcrowding of animals to the extent that the animal’s health or life is endangered. d. Ventilated shelter reasonably sufficient to provide adequate protection from the elements and weather conditions suitable for the age, species, and physical condition of the animal so as to maintain the animal in a state of good health to the extent that the animal’s health or life is endangered. The shelter must protect the animal from wind, rain, snow, or sun and have adequate bedding to provide reasonable protection against cold and dampness. A shelter may include a residence, garage, barn, shed, or doghouse. e. Grooming, to the extent it is reasonably necessary to prevent adverse health effects or suffering. f. Veterinary care deemed necessary by a reasonably prudent person ….

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 (1). en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights (“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”)

Public Trust Doctrine case. IOWA CITIZENS FOR COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT and FOOD & WATER WATCH vs. STATE OF IOWA et al, Iowa Supreme Court, 19-1644. June 18, 2021, (“remand with instructions to dismiss this case based on lack of standing and nonjusticiability.”) me: rights of people rather than the water

Environmental personhood. “Environmental personhood,” – New Zealand, India, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia

Denis Binder, “Perspectives on Forty Years of Environmental Law,” George Washington Journal of Energy & Environmental Law, June 2013, (pp. 148-149)

Christopher D. Stone. "Should Trees Have Standing--Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects." Southern California Law Review 45 (1972): 450; SHOULD TREES HAVE STANDING? TOWARD LEGAL RIGHTS FOR NATURAL OBJECTS. By Christopher D. Stone.' Los Altos, California: William Kaufman, Inc. 1974. Pp. xvii, 102. $6.95. Reviewed by Tom R. Moore – pp. 672-675

Christopher D. Stone, “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,“

2020 3d edition:

Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972) (727-780),; WOD dissent 741-755 (“Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” 741-742

p. 742 “A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes.” Fn2 in rem, salvage, collision

p. 743. [As with corporations and ships] “So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes-fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water-whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger-must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.”

p. 749-750 “[Given the often domination of regulatory agencies by the supposedly regulated] The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled. That does not mean that the judiciary takes over the managerial functions from the federal agency. It merely means that before these priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard. Perhaps they will not win. Perhaps the bulldozers of "progress" will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard?”

Justice Blackman, Douglas Appendix, pp. 755-756: “If this were an ordinary case, I would join the opinion and the Court's judgment and be quite content.

But this is not ordinary, run-of-the-mill litigation. The case poses-if only we choose to acknowledge and reach them-significant aspects of a wide, growing, and disturbing problem, that is, the Nation's and the world's deteriorating environment with its resulting ecological disturbances. Must our law be so rigid and our procedural concepts so inflexible that we render ourselves helpless when the existing methods and the traditional concepts do not quite fit and do not prove to be entirely adequate for new issues?”}

Rivers. Legal person, Wikipedia, https:// (“The Whanganui River was granted legal personality in March 2017 under New Zealand law because the Whanganui Māori tribe regard the river as their ancestor.[17]”(“17. Roy, Eleanor Ainge (16 March 2017). "New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being". The Guardian. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved 2017-03-16.”)

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1 comment:

Brian said...

Love the mental exercise here. The late Burns Weston and I had a great conversation on this issue - I'm assuming that he has some papers on it. The discussion migrated to standing issues for "John/Jane Does" of future generations. Can a lawyer assert rights/interests of the unborn future generations to bring cases to protect the environment 50 years out? Good stuff to ponder...