Counsel for Pluto
Being a planet carries with it certain rights and no small measure of respect. What can a defrocked, disenfranchised, shunned and stigmatized former planet do about its humiliation and loss? The announcement by Washington Post blogger Andrew Cohen that Pluto has sued the IAU drew responses from more than 150 readers, not all of whom happily recognized celestial litigation or supported the extraterrestrial plaintiff. Oh well. In a follow up a few days later, Cohen had to clarify, "Uh, Folks, There Are No People on Pluto." (Well how does he know? Besides, what is the definition of people?)
Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog, blogger lawyer Dan Hull (of What About Clients?) considered possible causes of action for the disgruntled dwarf heavenly body formerly considered a planet. He suggested: A claim in equity; quantum meruit; breach of celestial contract for services rendered; eminent domain, "Cosmic taking" damages under the Fifth Amendment; fraud, misrepresentation, or at least a detrimental reliance theory under the Restatement of Contracts (2nd). And he noted, "Even Justice Scalia might give standing to an aggrieved planet. We wait for Pluto's phone call."
Others ideas from readers: "This is really just a re-zoning issue." And, "Pluto may have excellent dilution or name disparagement claims. Dropping it from honored status to calling it a dwarf - that'll dilute your good name. There too are actual damages, just the loss of Pluto-identifying sales at the Hayden Planetarium gift shop alone. Read all the statutes and law on dilution, and you'll drift off into another orbit." And even, "A size-discrimination claim?"
Lawyers may also have a personal stake in this astronomically significant debate. Some folks have speculated that prosecutors are from Neptune, defense attorneys are from Pluto. Or is it the other way around?
And although no lawyers served on the IAU Planet Definition Committee, or voted that a planet is "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a . . . nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit," already the debate has been categorized as "lawyerly nitpicking."
In any case, it will soon be time to move on. But not yet. For now, some contemplate the literal meaning of Pluto's new status. Columbia University School of Law professor Michael Dorf considers, among other things, the time "the Department of Agriculture proposed rules that would permit states to count ketchup as a vegetable in calculating what qualified as a reimbursable school lunch." Was ketchup a condiment or a vegetable? The debate was nearly as devisive.
And what are lawmakers doing in defense of poor Pluto? Jeff Foust reports "a that a resolution introduced in the California State Assembly hours after the IAU's decision, HR 36, condemns the International Astronomical Union's decision to strip Pluto of its planetary status for its tremendous impact on the people of California and the state's long term fiscal health". However in Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune's poll of Utah's congressional delegation found no support for a Pluto Restoration Act of 2006 or Resolution to Re-Designate Pluto as a Planet. As Jeff reported, one representative remarked, "Since most members of Congress believe the universe revolves around them individually, I doubt most of them would be too concerned about losing a competing planet."
Never mind Utah, in Wisconsin last night the Madison City Council approved a resolution proclaiming Pluto Madison's ninth planet.
In the end, sadly, there may be no legal cause of action for the little world. But on a bright note, we've all rediscovered our fondness for Pluto the dog. At least he knows what he is. And of course, there's that obligatory hot market for t-shirts, mousepads, mugs and other "Pluto memorabilia worthy of a presidential candidate."
And really, the whole traumatic experience must in some ways be liberating for Pluto. The ex-planet is now free to let down its hair and do unplanet-like things, such as, oh, "grow a glowing tail of sun-blown ice vapor" or just generally be more open about its not so secret trans-Neptunian nature.
In the end, advocates for planet wanna-be's, KBO's and all objects that orbit the Sun past Neptune, not to mention individuals who are dwarfs, (dwarves? little people?), should not take offense at Pluto's offense. After all, ours is a big, diverse solar system. And labels are so silly. Why can't we all just get along?
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Image credit: DC Comics