WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court Monday granted a rare victory to animal rights activists in their 10-year-old bout with the federal government over the fate of a group of monkeys used for medical experimentation.
The court, in an 8-0 ruling, said activists have the right to pursue a suit in Louisiana state court in an effort to obtain custody of two surviving 'Silver Spring' monkeys that remain at a federally funded laboratory at Tulane University.
The court said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong in 1988 when it removed a suit to gain custody of the seven monkeys then at the Tulane facility from state court to federal court.
That 1988 ruling ultimately allowed the government to euthanize three of the monkeys for research. Two more of the macaque monkeys were killed last month as the high court was considering this case.
Administrators at the Delta Regional Primate Research Center in Covington, La., said all five monkeys were suffering and were euthanized in a painless procedure where their brains could be studied to benefit human stroke victims.
Animal rights groups contend the killings were an effort to dispose of evidence of earlier abuse of the monkeys.
Of the 17 monkeys seized in a 1981 police raid on a private Silver Spring, Md., facility funded by the National Institutes of Health, the fate of only the two surviving at Delta -- Nero and Sarah -- remain in question. They reportedly are in good health.
Five others also are still living, but they are no longer the subjects of experimentation and are living at the San Diego Zoo. Ten of the original 17 have died naturally or been killed in government-funded experiments since 1981.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Thurgood Marshall, said the 5th Circuit was wrong when it ruled that for purposes of the law a federal 'agency' such as NIH could remove a suit from state to federal court.
The law holds only that a federal 'official' can do so, and NIH does not qualify as an official, wrote Marshall.
Siriol Evans, a spokeswoman with the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the ruling enables PETA to 'continue the battle to give these monkeys their day in the sun.'
The Maryland-based PETA gained national prominence because of the Silver Spring monkeys case and the role of its founder in exposing the laboratory conditions, which included severe nerve damage to some of the monkeys.
Since 1981, it has fought for custody of the most badly injured monkeys, which have remained in NIH hands. The scientist supervising research at the NIH-funded Institute for Behavior Resources in Silver Spring was initially convicted of animal cruelty, but the convictions later were set aside.
PETA, joined by the International Primate Protection League andothers in its suit, hopes to force Delta to turn the two surviving monkeys over to them or to members of Congress under a Louisiana statute allowing such a result if animals are found to have been abused.
The government has contended for years that any research conducted on the animals is humane and necessary for medical research.
Despite Monday's ruling, it is unclear whether PETA ever will get the opportunity to fully explore its charges. The justices did not rule on whether Tulane could again remove the case to federal court on another technical issue.
Justice Antonin Scalia took no part in the decision.NEWLN: ------NEWLN: 90-89 International Primate Protection League, et al., vs. Administrators of Tulane Educational Fund, et al.