Animal Law

Judge Doesn’t Buy Expanding 13th Amendment Argument in PETA Suit over Enslaved Whales


PETA has lost its bid to get a federal judge to hear its lawsuit contending that SeaWorld is holding five killer whales in violation of the 13th Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed the suit on Wednesday, saying the 13th Amendment applies only to human beings and offers no redress for the plaintiffs, five orca whales represented in part by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as next friends. “As plaintiffs lack standing to bring a 13th Amendment claim, the court dismisses the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction,” Miller wrote.

The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune covered the ruling (PDF).

PETA had recognized “in the main” that the 13th Amendment applies only to persons, but had argued constitutional principles have been extended over the years to apply to changing times and conditions, according to Miller’s opinion. The group cited cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut, Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona.

“The primary difficulty with Next Friends’ argument for the expansion of the scope of the 13th Amendment is that the amendment is not reasonably subject to an expansive interpretation,” Miller said. “Unlike the other constitutional amendments relied upon by Next Friends, the 13th Amendment targets a single issue: the abolition of slavery within the United States. The amendment’s language and meaning is clear, concise, and not subject to the vagaries of conceptual interpretation.”

Miller ended his opinion with an expression of sympathy for the plaintiffs. He noted that several state and federal statutes could provide redress, including criminal statutes that punish people violating statutory duties to protect animals. “While the goal of Next Friends in seeking to protect the welfare of orcas is laudable, the 13th Amendment affords no relief to plaintiffs,” he said.

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