Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Attorney for Passenger Pigeons (Part 1 of 3)

© 2011 by Henry Melton

"What's this?"  asked Blake Springdale, as his secretary handed him the thin package of legal-sized sheets.
Shirley shrugged.  "I thought it was a pro-bono case at first, but it isn't like anything I have seen before."
He scanned the front sheet, and then dropped it like it was dipped in poison.
It was a legal summons.  Boiled down, he was to appear before the UN Intra-Species Arbitration Board.  The matter at hand was:
Homo sapiens (common name Humanity) 
Ectopistes migratorius (common name Passenger Pigeon) 
Represented by Blake Springdale, member United States Association of Environmental Law 
Oh no!  I've got an ISAB assignment.  
Then he saw the date.
"This can't be right.  That's only a couple of weeks away.  I can't be ready by then.  USAEL said that everyone would probably get one of these, but they said we'd have 90 days to prepare!"
"There was a cancellation."
The case had been assigned to a firm in Boston.  They held it two months and then cancelled.  The ISAB then sent it to the next person on the list, him.  He scowled as he read the final sentence.
"It is the policy of this board that due to the depth of the case load, no extensions to these proceedings will be granted."
They weren't going to give him any time.  His only choice was to hit the ground running.  Or cancel.
I can't cancel.  The USAEL had been very clear on the issue.  Members in good standing had to serve their turn at the ISAB, or lose their certification.  Maybe that Boston firm had other cases to deal with, but he was new in the Environmental Law specialization.  He needed the certification to survive.
He picked up the phone.
"Hello, Stan?  I wondered, have you ever had an ISAB case?  Do you know anyone who has?  I'll buy lunch for a little guidance."
After that call, he tapped the phone with his fingers for a minute, and then called his wife.
"Barbara, I've got an urgent case that will put me in New York on the 19th."
"That's Aunt Margaret's birthday!"
"I know, that's why I called you as soon as I found out about it."
"You promised.  We're her only family, and we do so little as it is."
Blake tried to pacify her, but she wasn't listening very well.
Not that it really makes any difference.  His wife's great aunt was in her late nineties, and since her stroke two years earlier, she was unresponsive.  This birthday party was just something to make his wife feel better.  If Aunt Margaret had any awareness of her surroundings, she gave no sign.
Steaks put the trio of lawyers in a good mood.  
"ISAB cases can be fun," said Gordon Potter.  "The UN pays for your stay.  It was their Declaration of Species Equivalence that started the whole ISAB process in the first place.  And, if you can win a big judgment for your clients, your cut can be a nice piece of change indeed."
"No doubt about that," agreed Dan Fieldstone.  "Just look at the ISAB surcharge on these steaks.  Just a few cents, but for every steak dinner, and every dairy delivery, and every leather shoe, it adds up.  And their negotiator gets a cut."
Blake asked, "And the cows get to admire their bank accounts before going to the slaughterhouse?  Or do they get custom decorations on their cow-bells?"
Dan shook his head.  "No.  That's the thing.  The rules are that you negotiate for the benefit of the species, not for any individuals of that species.
"In fact, domesticated animals don't generally do very well in the mediations.  Homo sapiens negotiators are good.  The UN pays top dollar to defend the rights of humanity, and unless an animal species has its own advocacy group, their lawyers are draftees, like you and me.  The chance for a big settlement is really the only thing that keeps the process honest.
"Repeatedly, the case has been made that domesticated animals have already gained a significant benefit from their historic association with humans.  There are more cattle now than there would have been if the species had been ignored by humans.  We provide them food, water, protection from predators, medical care.
"It's the wild species that go extinct, not some rancher's livestock."
"Then why the ISAB steak tax?"
Dan smiled.  "The cows lucked out.  Their negotiator made the case that long-term domestication had harmed their ability to survive in the wild.  By breeding repeatedly for placid beasts that could be easily handled, we've reduced their chances of surviving without us.
"That's why there are now preserves on each continent where cattle are being bred back to wild variants that can hold their own.
"Personally, I think the judgment was excessive, but the tax is minor, and few other species can use it as legal precedent.  From what I have heard, a New York firm has appealed the sheep award, citing the cow case.  But it'll likely be twenty years or so before they can get on the docket."
"No sooner?"
Gordon shook his head.  "No. There's an automatic review -- but only as a check for incompetent representation.  One of the first cases was handled by an old geezer who thought the whole thing was silly and bungled the case for some frog.  The case was resubmitted, the frogs won a part ownership of some marshland in Texas, and the original negotiator was censured by his state licensing board."
Blake shook his head.  "I can't say I don't have qualms myself.  Taking fairness to the snails and oak trees is a little outlandish."
Dan looked down at his plate, and stirred the butter in his potato.  "Oh, law isn't about fairness anyway.  It's about self-protection.  Without laws, it's 'might makes right'.  We protect the weak because tomorrow, we might be the weak, and we want all the right safeguards in place before we need it."
Blake nodded.  It was the Magellanic War.  Proof that aliens existed had changed so many things.  Everyone knew that those lights the astronomers saw a zillion light-years away could only be some vast battle in space.  But if there were space aliens with powerful weapons in the Magellanic cloud, then there could easily be others, closer to home.
With humanity's technological upper hand, any kindness to animals had been purely voluntary.  But if humans weren't the most powerful beings around, the idea of intra-species conflict being settled by strength of arms didn't sound so good any more. 
Dan smiled at Blake's frown.  "A few popular animals have their own advocates, but for the rest, we lawyers have to handle them pro-bono, just like we do for the incompetents of our own species.
"It may not make any difference if we bump up against aliens, but if we can talk, then we at least avoid having our own behavior used against us."
Blake nodded.  "I think I understand the basics.  But I need nuts and bolts advice."
"Do your research.  Humanity lawyers have a big staff, and you can be sure they know more about your client than you do.  You said yours is some kind of bird?  Then check for habitat reduction, or hunting.  That's the big thing."
Gordon added, "And be prepared for any case where your animal harms humanity.  In the smallpox case, it was ruled that its near extinction was appropriate self-defense by humanity."
"But it didn't hurt the rattlesnakes," said Dan.  "In their case, the ruling was that any harm to humanity was incidental to human encroachment."
Gordon asked, "What was your species again?"
Blake looked at his notepad.  "Ectopistes migratorius, the passenger pigeon."
Gordon looked at Dan.  Dan tightened his lips.
"What is it?" Blake asked.
"Passenger pigeons are extinct," Dan said.
"What?  How can that be?"
Gordon nodded, "It's true.  They died out a hundred years or so ago."
Blake sat back in his chair, his mind in a whirl.
"How can I possibly represent a dead species?  It this a mistake?"
Dan shook his head.  "No.  I knew this was coming.  I just didn't know they'd drop it on you.
"The UN noticed several species being deliberately hunted to extinction, once the ISAB was set up, so they ruled that extinction, per se, was no bar to ISAB judgment.  No fair winning the case by killing the plaintiffs.
"But the side effect is that extinct species have to go through the same ISAB process."
"But how does this work?  How can I argue for a judgment to benefit my client, when it doesn't even exist?"
Dan shook his head.  "I don't know.  Your case is the first one of this class.  Yours will set the rules.  But you know," he frowned, "you have to win this.  Yours is the precedent for all the other extinctions.  No award and people will know that it's okay to push the marginal species over the edge.  You can't let that happen."

1 comment:

Mike G. said...

Weapon blasts visible from the Magellanic Clouds, that would be scary hardware! :)

Another interesting concept, looking forward to the rest.

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