There’s a difference between what a written ruling by a court states and what someone wants it to say. A recent headline proclaimed that the Oregon Supreme Court had elevated the legal status of animals. I reviewed all 14 pages of the actual decision. The Oregon Supreme Court wisely decided a case, but the headline was erroneous and wishful thinking.
It all began when police in Oregon, acting on a tip, entered Arnold Nix’s farm and found dozens of starving horses and goats and several animal carcasses. Under Oregon law, Nix was indicted on 23 counts of first-degree animal neglect and 70 counts of second-degree animal neglect. Each separate count identified a different animal and charged conduct by Nix toward that animal. All of the separate counts were alleged to have occurred within the same span of time. At trial, a jury convicted Nix of 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect.
At Nix’s sentencing hearing, the state requested that the trial court impose 20 separate convictions because the jury had found Nix guilty of neglecting 20 different animals. The state argued that the convictions should not be merged because even though only one statutory provision was violated, there were multiple victims.
Nix’s lawyer disagreed and asked the court to merge the 20 guilty verdicts into a single conviction. Defense counsel asserted that merger was appropriate as only one statutory provision was violated and there were not multiple victims, because an animal is not defined as a victim, under Oregon law.
The trial court merged the guilty verdicts into a single conviction, agreeing with the defense that animals are not victims, as defined by statute. The trial court then sentenced Nix to 90 days in jail and three years of bench probation and then suspended imposition of the jail sentence.
The state promptly appealed, assigning error to the trial court’s merger of the 20 counts of second-degree animal neglect. The state cited another Oregon case that defined the term “victim.” In the case, the state argued the text, context and legislative history of the second-degree animal neglect statute make clear that the legislature intended the neglected animals as the victims of the offense.
Nix’s lawyer countered that the ordinary meaning of the term “victim” does not include non-humans. Animals, he argued, are treated by Oregon law as the property of their owners. In defendant’s view, because no statute expressly defines the word to include animals, only persons can be victims under the anti-merger statute.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court based on a review of the text and history of the relevant Oregon statute. The court concluded that, although animals are usually the property of persons, the Oregon statute reflects a broader public interest in “protecting individual animals as sentient beings” by ensuring that such animals receive minimum care and are not abused or neglected.
This time, Nix appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, who decided the case on August 17, 2014. The Oregon Supreme Court held that the question was one of legislative intent regarding the relevant Oregon statute that protects animals from neglect. The Court held that in adopting that statute, the legislature regarded those animals as “victims” of the offense. The Court elaborated that “our decision is not one of policy about whether animals are deserving of such treatment under the law. That is a matter for the legislature…”
The trial court will now get to sentence Nix without merging the verdicts. The likely outcome is a more severe and appropriate penalty for neglect of 20 animals.
The sensationalized headlines were due to animal activists’ interpretation that the Oregon Supreme Court had elevated the legal status of animals. In fact, the decision specifically states that this is not so. Ultimately, activists want to award animals with the same legal protections afforded humans so that “factory farming” can be banned. Instead of large farms worrying about whether they have hired an undercover animal rights operative, the focus would be on keeping lawyers, anxious to represent the rights of confined livestock in court, away from the animals so they could not claim them as clients. As crazy as this sounds, this legal tactic was proposed by a popular lawyer who represents anti-farming interests. I guess that the ambulance chasers in the profession would need to purchase boots.
As a dairy farmer, I think the Oregon Supreme Court issued a sound ruling. Abuse or neglect of animals is inexcusable. And should animals suffer harm due to vandalism or terrorism against farms, similar reasoning should apply so that proper sentencing is handed down to discourage such behavior.