TRENTON – Animals in New Jersey could soon get assigned a representative advocating for their interests in court cases, under a bill that appears to have a good chance of making it through the Legislature.

The bill, A1965, has been approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The Senate unanimously passed a version of the plan last year that never got an Assembly hearing, so it would have to be reconsidered in the Senate as part of the new two-year session.

The plan’s latest incarnation establishes a two-year pilot Statewide Animal Advocate Program, under which judges hearing criminal cases that affect the welfare or care of an animal can appoint an attorney or law student who volunteers to represent the best interests of, and justice for, an animal.

Bill sponsor Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, said none of the people in the criminal justice system are specifically tasked with looking out for the interests of animals – and that the proposal comes with no costs to the state.

“The advocate would have a role in the system that I think prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, judges would all benefit from,” Mukherji said.

The bill is modeled in part on a 2016 law in Connecticut called Desmond’s Law, which since has been replicated in Maine. Opponents of the plan say it goes farther than the Connecticut law but shouldn’t, but Mukherji disagrees.

“I didn’t think it went far enough. By the way, I don’t think ours does either,” Mukerji said. “But it’s a pilot for now.”

Doris Lin, director of legal affairs for the League of Humane Voters of New Jersey, likened it to laws that allow for the appointment of an advocate for a child.

“By allowing a volunteer advocate to be appointed for an animal, the Legislature is recognizing that the animal’s interests should be represented and that those interests may not be adequately represented by a defense attorney or prosecutor,” Lin said.

Phil Goldberg, a lobbyist representing the Animal Health Institute, the trade association for manufacturers of pet and livestock medicine, said the bill oversteps its purpose by giving an animal its own legal representation, which he says would be unprecedented.

“Blurring the legal line between pets and children have long been a goal of the animal rights community,” Goldberg said.

Brian Hackett, legislative affairs manager of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the bill provides for an advocate that can assist with research and suggest options – but doesn’t give animals personhood or an attorney in court.

“There is no far animal rights conspiracy involved in this bill to add anything that is not already in existing law,” Hackett said.

Advocates for the bill told lawmakers former Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, has already recruited a team of around 40 attorneys volunteering to participate in the program.

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Tom Leach, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research and the Coalition of Responsible Pet Stores, said the bill wrongly assumes the current system is failing animals.

“The interests of justice would be best served if the prosecutor, the defense and the court itself could make that determination without allowing an outsider to petition the court to be appointed as an advocate in a high-profile case, for example,” Leach said.

The Legislature disbanded and reconstituted the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2018, with enforcement now in the hands of prosecutors. Supporters of the bill say that change doesn’t make prosecutors advocate for animals’ interests.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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