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Animal Law Section backs ‘courtroom animal advocates’ legislation

Senior Editor Top Stories
Ralph DeMeo

Ralph DeMeo

A Central Florida lawmaker has withdrawn a bill that would allow judges to appoint “courtroom animal advocates,” but the Animal Law Section is undeterred. “If you’ll pardon the pun, the bill still has legs,” said Animal Law Section executive council member Ralph DeMeo. “There is still time, and we are working with other potential sponsors.”

Rep. Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, filed HB 227 on October 4, but withdrew it two weeks later. A Senate companion, SB 172 by Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, is pending but has yet to receive a hearing.

The 60-day legislative session convenes January 11.

SB 172 would give judges the discretion at any time in a proceeding to appoint a volunteer attorney or certified legal intern to serve as a courtroom animal advocate. Judges would select candidates from a registry maintained by the Animal Law Section.

The measure would allow animal advocates to monitor hearings, inspect court records, confer with attorneys on both sides, and make presentations to the court “pertinent to determinations that relate to the interests of the animal in question.”

The bill specifies that the presentations could include “victim impact statements when appropriate.”

Akin to a guardian ad litem who safeguards the interests of a child in court proceedings, a courtroom animal advocate would serve mostly in cases involving the prosecution of animal abusers, DeMeo said.

DeMeo stressed that the legislation does not create a civil cause of action and that courtroom animal advocates would serve solely at the discretion of judges.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Connecticut established the first courtroom animal advocate program in 2016. The group traces the concept to 2007, when a judge appointed a Valparaiso University School of Law professor to serve as a guardian/special master in the case against former NFL quarterback Michael Vick. Vick served 21 months in federal prison after being linked to an illegal dog-fighting ring.

Killebrew declined through a legislative aide to be interviewed.

DeMeo said Killebrew was forced to make a tough decision because of a House rule that prohibits members from filing more than seven bills per session.

Killebrew has filed four animal-related measures for the 2022 session, including HB 25. Another Animal Law Section priority, HB 25 would establish a state program to provide subsidized veterinary care for retired law enforcement dogs.

“It’s not that he is abandoning us or support for the concept, it’s simple legislative numbers,” DeMeo said. “Killebrew has been a wonderful supporter, we love him.”

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