Trump's Supreme Court Nominee May Be the Most Important Thing Trump Does to Animals

Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on a fishing expedition with Antonin Scalia
As much as Trump promises to empower the most extreme voices on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration, animal advocates have long had good reason to fear the Trump administration. Trump's ties to notorious ag empresarios and persecutors of activists from Forrest Lucas of Protect the Harvest to Bruce Rastetter of "ag gag" fame give cause for worry. Despite this all, potentially the most important - that is, damaging - nomination for animals is Trump's Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

Why the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court touches on all sorts of issues - LGBTQ+ and women's rights, voting rights, civil liberties, federalism, etc. - but when has it ever played a major role in animal rights? How could we even predict how a Supreme Court nominee would rule?

Trump with nominee Neil Gorsuch
The thing to note is that while nominations, personal ties, regulations, and even laws come and go, it takes a much longer time for a Supreme Court nominee to come and go. At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest nominee to the court in 25 years. He will likely be on the court for 30 years at least - and possibly up to 40 given his health and excellent healthcare. The question is not what cases are before the court today, but what cases will be before the court in the next 30 - or 40 years.

Based on the answers I've heard from leaders of our own movement, most of us think we will achieve something close to animal liberation, or at least the end of factory farming, in that timeframe. This is not just DxE; at a panel at last year's Effective Altruism Global x in Boston, Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, Jon Camp of The Humane League, and Sharon Nunez Gough of Animal Equality all offered a similar timeline. Add to this that there has not been a major movement for the rights of an oppressed class - not civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, disability rights, or LGBTQ+ rights - that avoided the court, and it becomes exceedingly likely that our movement will have a vital, life-and-death (or rather life-and-mass murder) case under Justice Gorsuch and anyone else nominated any time soon.

What sorts of cases might come before the court? There are an array of possibilities, and there likely will be an array of cases, but here are two:

A screenshot from "Unlocking the Cage"
-Cases regarding the legal standing of animals and rights owed to animals under pre-existing laws. The Nonhuman Rights Project, should it succeed in getting lower state courts to grant nonhuman animals limited rights and legal personhood, will likely see repeated appeals and could very well make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, that seems like a necessary step to get the sort of sweeping precedent NhRP would like. Down the road, one could imagine ideas previously seen as ridiculous - like PETA's case against orca slavery under the 13th amendment or a case for equal protection under the 14th amendment - come before the court. Courts are often critical to the protection of groups with less political power from a tyrannical majority. Who has less political power than nonhuman animals?

-Cases regarding the degree to which regulations at both the federal and state level can stand. The Supreme Court has a lousy track record here, having struck down a California animal welfare law, saying that it was pre-empted by a weak federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In a unanimous ruling, conservatives achieved their anti-regulatory goals and liberals achieved their goal of strengthening the federal government all at the expense of animals, which neither side currently cares about. Hopefully the court's liberals will start to care about animals more as time goes on, but the more conservative the court is to start, the more difficult the climb will be.

There are other types of cases we likely can't imagine that may surprise us, and the best way to prepare for unforeseen cases is to have the best people on the court possible.

Given that we know next to nothing about Gorsuch's views specific to animals and basically never know anything about a nominee's specific views on the matter before they are confirmed, how are we to judge?

Well, despite all the talk in the animal rights movement about how animal rights and other progressive views do not imply each other and vice versa, it's generally true that the more progressive someone is, the more supportive they'll be of animal rights. Groups like HSUS argue that animal rights is a nonpartisan issue while others point out that many animal rights activists are xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, or sexist.

The truth is that while these both may be true, progressives and people who identify as Democrats tend to be more supportive of animal rights. Animal rights shares an intellectual kinship with progressive values, particularly the sorts of progressive values held most deeply by those trained in reason and logic, i.e. lawyers and judges. So while liberals on the court are failing animals, there's a lot more hope that they'll come around. Another conservative on the court, on the other hand, is a very bad thing for animals - for decades and decades.

Update: Another point worth noting is that Gorsuch has critiqued Peter Singer's utilitarian philosophy at length on the topic of euthanasia. This is yet more reason to think that Gorsuch will be unsympathetic to animal advocates. Thanks to Harrison Nathan for pointing this out.
Want to take action? Call 202-224-3121 and ask to be put through to the Senator for your state. Tell them to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful blog! I was fortune to have Steven Wise as a professor for a class he teaches at Lewis & Clark law school every summer!

  2. Who are some of the most "Animal Friendly" politicians? Isnt Corey Booker supportive of Animal Rights? Trump is the Worst in many regards.We DEFINITLY need to vote for those who care about Animal Rights


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