Cooley Animal Law Society focuses on legislative updates and actions



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A couple dozen law students and community members who gave up their Saturdays last weekend to attend Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Animal Law Society (ALS) symposium received a lot of information, most of it good news, some of it bad.

Firmly in the “good news” category is the designation of Michigan as the third best state in the union for animal laws. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) ranks states each year, and Michigan moved up from fourth in 2012 to third in 2013, said one of the symposium’s speakers, ALDF Legislative Affairs Director Chris Green.
The even better news is that if Michigan passes some bills now under consideration in the legislature to create an animal abuse offender registry, it will have a good chance at number one. ALDF is strongly pressing for state registries across the nation; the purpose is to prevent known abusers from adopting and repeating their crimes. 

Green also told the crowd that in his home state of Illinois, just one woman singlehandedly advocated for 24 successful bills, drafting them herself. “It’s easy to feel that it’s all way off there in the capital and it’s a different world so you have no real way to impact it, but that shows a single person can.”

He might have been talking about the next speaker, Renee Edmondson, founder of Cooley’s ALS and currently Legislative Assistant to Representative Harvey Santana. To call Edmondson instrumental in the process of moving the animal abuse offender registry legislation forward is an understatement.

As detailed in the 4/17/2013 Grand Rapids Legal News, Edmondson was interning for local animal rights attorney Ginny Mikita when she came across New York county registry ordinances. Edmondson and a fellow Cooley student wrote up legislation to shop around for statewide adoption.

Edmondson met Rep. Santana in the process, and he hired her. Being unable to fulfill his speaking commitment for the sympoisum at the last minute, Santana asked Edmondson to speak in his stead, and her clear passion for animal rights made her a great substitute.

“Some of the things that Chris mentioned were obstacles we ran across right away,” she said.

Chief among them was that the Michigan State Police (MSP), proposed as the agency to create and maintain the registry, opposed the bills, in part because the cost  was deemed to be too high. The “aha moment” in the search for a solution came when one of the representatives on the committee reviewing the bills asked, “Have you thought about using ICHAT?”

ICHAT, the Internet Criminal History Access Tool, is a searchable record of public criminal history. It seemed like a great idea, but a few problems arose: the requirement that law enforcement report only felonies and misdemeanors punishable by over-93 day sentences, which misses some animal abuse violations; and the per-search cost of $10, prohibitive for entities adopting out pets frequently. But Santana and Edmondson worked these out (all animal abuse
will be reported; the $10 fee will be waived for those users), and MSP dropped its opposition. House bills 4534, 4755, 5061 and 5062  (and an identical Senate package) are on their way.

ALDF’s Chris Green had other good news, including the defeat of an anti-animal amendment to the Farm Bill; progress on limiting the terms under which the USDA?Wildlife Service, a little-known agency, can eradicate animals; negotiations with researchers using chimpanzees; ordinances on elephant abuse in circuses; and a series of successes in defeating what are called “Ag-Gag” laws.

These laws provide penalties for individuals who publicize farm animal abuse, especially at Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the large factory farms that raise animals in very tight quarters. In most states the laws have failed; in the few states where they have passed, ALDF?has succeeded in gutting their worst aspects.

ALDF also stands ready to litigate against Ag Gag on constitutional, primarily First Amendment, grounds.

After lunch, Cooley Professor Devin Schindler delivered the only bad news of the day in his discussion of  legislation affecting specific breeds, such as pit bulls. Unfortunately, that bad news is seemingly overarching.

Schindler gave a history of courts’ view of animal rights. He referred to the decision in Sentell v. New Orleans & Carrollton Railroad Co. (1897), which states, “Even if it were assumed that dogs are property in the fullest sense..., they would still be subject to the police power of the state, and might be destroyed or otherwise dealt with, as... is necessary for the protection of... citizens.” Schindler said the view that animal ownership is not a fundamental right still prevails. He went through a list of arguments  against that and why they have failed. But he added, analogizing the situation to marriage equality, “I can see a world in 50 years where, if we keep passing these laws and getting it out in front of the public, that might change.”

Audience members, who were indeed displeased, agreed but thought the time might come sooner. They had a lot of detailed and informed questions for all the speakers.

ALS, whose president Milica Zivkovic emceed, provided attendees a comprehensive list of current Michigan animal welfare bills and their status.