Photo:  James W.  Ellis

James W.  Ellis

Professor Emeritus


  • A.B. 1968, Occidental College
  • J.D. 1974, University of California, Berkeley
  • Member of the District of Columbia Bar

Contact Information

 Ph.: 505-277-4830
 Fax: 505-277-1597
 Office: 3212


Since joining the UNM law faculty in 1976, Jim Ellis has worked on behalf of people with mental disabilities in the civil and criminal justice system. He has filed briefs in 18 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2002 argued Atkins v. Virginia, in which the high court held that the execution of individuals with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Ellis, who teaches Constitutional Rights, Introduction to Constitutional Law, and Rights of Children, along with Mental Health and Retardation Law and Mental Disability in Criminal Cases, has spent his career writing articles, amicus briefs and appearing before congressional committees and state legislative committees across the country arguing for the rights of people with disabilities. UNM students have frequently been invited to participate in this work, including each of the briefs to the Supreme Court.

For this work, Ellis has received numerous national awards, including the National Law Journal's "Lawyer of the Year" honor in 2002. Other honors include the Paul Hearne Award for Disability Advocacy from the American Bar Association, the Call to Action Award by the ARC of the United States, the Champion of Justice Award by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and recognition by the National Historic Trust on Mental Retardation as one of 36 significant individuals in the field of mental retardation in the 20th Century.

He has served as law reporter for the A.B.A. Criminal Justice Standards project and president of the American Association on Mental Retardation (now known as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.)

Ellis' interest in mental disability dates to his service at the Yale Psychiatric Institute as a conscientious objector. After law school at the University of California (Boalt Hall), he worked at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., before joining the UNM law faculty.


Advanced Constitutional Rights

Course Description

Advanced Constutional Rights is the continuation of my section's Constitutional Rights course, and focuses on First Amendment issues involving the speech, press, and religion clauses.

Constitutional Rights

This course involves an in-depth inquiry into the building blocks of civil rights law; freedom of expression (speech and press), equal protection, due process, and religious freedom. There will be discussion of litigation strategy and the decision-making processes of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Criminal Law I

This course considers the general principles of substantive criminal law and evaluates them in terms of the various purposes that justify a system of criminal punishment. It will include an analysis of the doctrines of mens rea attempt, complicity, and conspiracy as well as certain crimes such as homicide and certain defenses such as self-defense.

Introduction to Constitutional Law

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the study of Constitutional Law. The focus will be on the structural framework established by the Constitution, including principles of federalism and the role of the Supreme Court in policing the constitutional order. Among other things, we will study the doctrine of judicial review, the reach of federal legislative power, limits on the reach of state power, the workings of the Supreme Court, and separation of powers and limits on the exercise of federal judicial power.

Mental Disability in Criminal Cases

Course Description

The seminar will explore the implications of mental disabilities (primarily mental illness and mental retardation) to both substantive and procedural issues at every stage of the criminal justice process, including interrogation of suspects with disabilities, competence to waive constitutional rights, competence to stand trial, criminal responsibility (including the insanity defense), and sentencing. Course materials will include statutes, appellate cases, standards propounded by professional organizations, and clinical materials. Discussion will also focus on videotaped excerpts, which allow consideration of the actual functioning of defendants with disabilities.

See Professor for course description.

Mental Health and Retardation Law

Course Description

The seminar will explore issues encountered by people with mental disabilities in the civil justice system. Topics will include guardianship and competence, substitute decision making, civil commitment, right to treatment and habilitation, and discrimination based on disabilities. The primary focus will be on constitutional issues, although there will be some discussion of statutory matters as well.


This class introduces you to the work and professional roles of lawyers. It investigates the meaning of professionalism; examines the role of personal and professional values in becoming and being a lawyer; and discusses various aspects of legal practice, including ways to improve your likelihood of success and happiness in your career.

As background, empirical studies show that lawyers who pick their fields carefully based upon their own strengths and needs are happier and do better in the profession overall. Other studies show that multitasking and excessive stress interfere with clear thinking. Indeed, calm focused people are better at what they do, whatever profession they enter. They are also more efficient and work better with others. Calm focused people are also happier and have a better sense of their own priorities and values. This class is designed to:

  • help you learn about the legal system and the professional role of attorneys;
  • help you create space in your life for activities that keep you balanced as a human being;
  • help you control stress and thus enhance your academic and professional success;
  • help you improve your interpersonal skills;
  • allow you to develop a support system at the law school by getting to know some of your peers in an unconventional setting; and
  • allow you to develop a relationship with a faculty member that is supportive both inside and outside the classroom.

Being a lawyer can be all you want it to be and can give you the power to bring about whatever change you want to see. This class will help prepare you to do just that.


Books & Book Chapters

Voluntary Admission and Involuntary Hospitalization of Minors, Law, Mental Health, And Mental Disorder 487-502 (Sales et al. eds., 1996).
Available at: UNM-DR

Due Process to Adolescents, Debating Children's Lives: Current Controversies on Children and Adolescents (Mason et al. eds., 1994).
Available at: UNM-DR

Competence and Confessions, in 1989 A.B.A. Sec. Crim. Just. Mental Health Standards 303 (1989).
Available at: UNM-DR

Competence and Capital Punishment, 1989 A.B.A. Sec. Crim. Just. Mental Health Standards 284 (1989).
Available at: UNM-DR

Commitment of Nonresponsibility Acquitees, 1989 A.B.A. Crim. Just. Mental Health Standards 395 (1989).
Available at: UNM-DR

Residential Placement of 'Dual Diagnosis' Clients: Emerging Legal Issues, Mental Retardation and Mental Health: Classification, Diagnosis, Treatment, Services (Stark et al eds., 1988).
Available at: UNM-DR

Model Statute: An Act to Guarantee the Right of Developmentally Disabled Persons to Receive Appropriate Services and to Establish Consent Procedures to Allow the Provision of those Services, Disabled Persons and the Law: State Legislative Issues (B. Sales et al. eds., 1982).
Available at: UNM-DR

The Least Restrictive Alternative: Principles And Practices (1981) (co-authored with H. R. Turnbull, E. Boggs, P. Brooks & D. Biklen).
Available at: UNM-DR

Commitment Proceedings for Mentally Ill and Mentally Retarded Children, Child Psychiatry And The Law (Schetky eds., 1980).
Available at: UNM-DR

Consent Handbook (1977) (co-authored with H. R. Turnbull, D. Biklen, E. Boggs, C. Keeran, & G. Siedor).
Available at: UNM-DR

Patients' Rights in Program Evaluation, Program Evaluation For Mental Health: Methods, Strategies, Participants 313 (R. Coursey ed., 1977).
Available at: UNM-DR


Evaluating Intellectual Disability: Clinical Assessments in Atkins Cases, 46 HOFSTRA L. REV. 1305 (2018) (co-authored with Caroline Everington and Ann Delpha).
Available at: UNM-DR

Hall v. Florida: The Supreme Court's Guidance in Implementing Atkins, 23 WM. & MARY BILL RTS. J. 383 (2014).
Available at: UNM-DR

The Law's Understanding of Intellectual Disability as a Disability, 51 INTELL. & DEV. DISABILITIES 102 (2013).

Disability Advocacy and Atkins, 57 DEPAUL L. REV. 653 (2008).
Available at: UNM-DR

Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty: A Guide to State Legislative Issues, 27 MENTAL & PHYSICAL DISABILITY L. REP. 11 (2003).
Available at: UNM-DR

Disability Advocacy and the Death Penalty: The Road from Penry to Atkins, 33 N.M.  L. REV. 173-181 (2003).
Available at: NMLR

Some Observations on the Juvenile Commitment Cases: Reconceptualizing What The Child Has At Stake, 31 LOY. L.A. L. REV. 929 (1998).
Available at: UNM-DR

Decisions by and for People with Mental Retardation: Balancing Considerations of Autonomy and Protection, 37 VILL. L. REV. 1779 (1992).
Available at: UNM-DR

Limits on the State's Power to Confine 'Dangerous' Persons: Constitutional Implications of Foucha v. Louisiana, 15 U. PUGENT SOUND L. REV. 635 (1992).
Available at: UNM-DR

Introduction to Symposium, The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 22 N.M. L. REV. 7 (1992).
Available at: NMLR

Presidential Address 1990: Mental Retardation at the Close of the 20th Century: A New Realism, 28 MENTAL RETARDATION 263 (1990).

If Your Client is Mentally Retarded, CRIM. JUST. 12 (Winter 1988) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).
Available at: UNM-DR

The Rights of People with Mental Retardation and the Future of Residential Institutions, 7 SUPERINTENDENTS' DIG. 106 (1988).

On the 'Usefulness' of Suspect Classifications, 3 CONST. COMMENT. 375 (1986).
Available at: UNM-DR

Denying Treatment to Infants with Handicaps: A Comment on Bowen v. American Hospital Association, 24 MENTAL RETARDATION 237 (1986) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).

The Consequences of the Insanity Defense: Proposals to Reform Post-Acquittal Commitment Laws, 35 CATH. U. L. REV. 961 (1986).
Available at: UNM-DR

It's Time to Change AAMD's Name, 24 MENTAL RETARDATION 319 (1986).

The New AAMD Constitution, 24 MENTAL RETARDATION 128 (1986).

Discrimination Against People with Mental Retardation: A Comment on the Cleburne Decision, 23 MENTAL RETARDATION 249 (1985) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).

Mentally Retarded Criminal Defendants, 53 GEO. WASH. L. REV. 414 (1985) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).
Available at: UNM-DR

Hospice and the Devaluation of Human Life: A Response, 22 MENTAL RETARDATION 163 (1984) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).

Representing Institutionalized Mentally Retarded Persons, 7 MENTAL DISABILITY L. REP. 40 (1983) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).
Available at: UNM-DR

The Supreme Court and Institutions: A Comment on Youngberg v. Romeo, 20 MENTAL RETARDATION 197 (1982).

Tort Responsibility of Mentally Disabled Persons, 1981 AM. B. FOUND. RES. J. 1079 (1981).
Available at: UNM-DR

Treating Children Under the Mental Health and Developmental Disability Code, 10 N.M. L. REV. 279 (1980) (co-authored with D. Carter).
Available at: NMLR

The Liberty Interest of Children: Due Process Rights and Their Application, 12 FAM. L.Q. 153 (1978) (co-authored with L. Teitelbaum).
Available at: UNM-DR

Model Statute: Mental Health Treatment for Minors, Legal Issues in State Mental Health Care: Proposals for Change, 2 MENTAL DISABILITY L. REP. 459 (1978).

Volunteering Children: Parental Commitment of Minors to Mental Institutions, 62 CAL. L. REV. 840 (1974).
Available at: UNM-DR

Popular Press

Should Members Feel Guilty about the Flag Amendment?, ROLL CALL 5 (July 24-30, 1989).

Dixon case, in MENTAL HYGIENE 18 (Fall 1976).

Bartley case, MENTAL HYGIENE 20 (Spring 1976).

Donaldson case, MENTAL HYGIENE 18 (Summer 1975).

Regulation of Electro-convulsive Therapy, MENTAL HYGIENE 18 (Spring 1975).

Book Reviews

A. Carmi, S. Schneider, & A. Hefez's Psychiatry-Law And Ethics, 39 INT'L DIG. HEALTH LEG. 300 (1988).

Chronicling a Movement for Civil Rights (S. Brakel, J. Parry & B. Weiner's The Mentally Disabled And The Law (3d ed. 1985)), 22 LAW & SOC'Y REV. 1027 (1988).
Available at: UNM-DR

S. Herr, S. Arons, & R. Wallace's Legal Rights And Mental Health Care (1983) and S. Herr's Rights And Advocacy For Retarded People (1983), 36 INT'L DIG. HEALTH LEG. 846 (1985).

D. Wexler's Mental Health Law: Major Issues (1981), 1983 AM. B. FOUND. RES. J. 277.

S. Hayes & R. Hayes' Mental Retardation: Law, Policy And Administration (1982), 34 INT'L DIG. HEALTH LEG. 703 (1983).

Judges and Politics: Accountability and Independence in an Election Year (Preble Stolz's Judging Judges: The Investigation of Rose Bird and the California Supreme Court (1981) and Philip L. Dubois' From Ballot to Bench: Judicial Elections and the Quest for Accountability (1980)), 12 N.M. L. REV. 873 (1982).
Available at: NMLR

S. Katz's The Youngest Minority: Lawyers In Defense Of Children (1974), CHILD. TODAY 31 (March-April 1976).



New Mexico Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code, 1977 N.M. Laws ch. 279, codified at N.M. Stat. Ann. 43-1-2 to 43-1-25 (1978) (Repl. 1984) (principal drafter).

U.S. Supreme Court Briefs

Brief for The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at al. as Amicus Curiae, Bobby James Moore v. Texas; Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas (2016) (No. 15-797) (co-counsel with Ann Delpha, Carol Suzuki, Steven Homer, David Stout & April Land).
Available at: UNM-DR

Brief for The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities et al. as Amicus Curiae, Freddie Lee Hall v. State of Florida,The Supreme Court of Florida. (2012) (NO. 12-10882) (co-counsel with April Land, Ann Delpha, Carol Suzuki & Steven Homer).
Available at: UNM-DR

Brief for The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry et al. as Amicus Curiae, Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233 (2007) and 550 U.S. 286 (2007); U.S. Supreme Court No. 05-11284 and 05-11287 (filed August 2006) (co-counsel with Carol M. Suzuki, Norman C. Bay, Steven K. Homer & April Land).

Brief for The American Association on Mental Retardation et Amicus Curiae, Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735 (2006); U.S. Supreme Court No. 05-5966 (filed January 2006) (co-counsel with Norman C. Bay, Michael B. Browde, Steven K. Homer & Carol M. Suzuki).

Brief for The American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amicus Curiae, United States v. Georgia, 546 U.S. 151 (2006); U. S. Supreme Court Nos. 04-1203 and 04-1236 (filed July 29, 2005) (co-Counsel with Michael B. Browde, April Land, Steven K. Homer & Carol Suzuki).

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amicus Curiae, Stripling v. Head, No. 03-1392 (Oct. 14, 2003) (certiorari granted) (co-counsel with Carol M. Suzuki, Norman Bay & Christian G. Fritz).
Available at: UNM-DR

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amicus Curiae, Tennard v. Dretke, No. 02-10038 (Oct. 14, 2003) (consolidated for oral arguments with Smith v. Dretke, No. 02-11309) (certiorari granted) (co-counsel with Norman C. Bay, Michael B. Browde, Christian G. Fritz, April Land & Robert L. Schwartz).
Available at: UNM-DR

Brief for The American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Ernest Paul McCarver v. State of North Carolina, The Supreme Court of North Carolina (2001) (No. 00-8727).
Available at: UNM-DR

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Penry v. Johnson (Penry II), 121 S.Ct. 1910 (2001) (No. 00-6677) (co-counsel with Michael B. Browde & Jeffrey J. Pokorak).

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Board of Trusties of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001) (No. 99-1240).

Respondent's Brief, Kansas v Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997) (No. 95-1649) (co-counsel with Thomas J. Weilert).

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996) (No. 95-5207) (co-counsel with Barbara Bergman).

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) (No. 94-1039) (co-counsel with Maureen Sanders).

Brief for American Psychiatric Association et al. as Amici Curiae, Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993) (No. 92-725) (co-counsel with Barbara Bergman).

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312 (1993) (No. 92-351) (co-counsel with Maureen A. Sanders).

Brief for American Orthopsychiatric Associationet al. as Amici Curiae, Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71 (1992) (No. 90-5844) (co-counsel with Barbara Bergman).

Brief for American Association on Mental Retardation et al. as Amici Curiae, Penry v. Lynaugh (Penry I), 492 U.S. 302 (1989) (No. 87-6177) (co-counsel with Ruth Luckasson),

Brief for American Association on Mental Deficiency et al. as Amici Curiae, Heckler v. Am. Hosp. Ass'n., 476 U.S. 610 (1986) (No. 84-1529) (co-counsel with Ruth Luckasson).

Brief for American Association on Mental Deficiency et al. as Amici Curiae, City Of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432 (1985) (No. 84-468) (co-counsel with Ruth Luckasson).


Mentally Retarded Criminal Defendants, 53 GEO. WASH. L. REV. 414 (1985) (co-authored with R. Luckasson).
Available at: UNM-DR

 Cited: Penry v. Lynaugh, Director, Texas Department of Corrections, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, No. 87-6177 (1989).

The Liberty Interest of Children: Due Process Rights and Their Application, 12 FAM. L.Q. 153 (1978) (co-authored with L. Teitelbaum).
Available at: UNM-DR

Reprinted:  2 MENTAL DISABILITY L. REP. 582 (1978)

Brief of Amici Curiae American Association on Mental Retardation, American Psychological Association, Association for Retarded Citizens of the U.S., Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, American Association of University Affiliated Programs for the Developmentally Disabled, American Orthopsychiatric Association, New York State Association for Retarded Children, National Association of Private Residential Resources, National Association of Superintendents of Public Residential Facilities for the Mentally Retarded, Mental Health Law Project, and National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, Penry v. Lynaugh (Penry I), 492 U.S. 302 (1989) (No. 87-6177) (co-counsel with Ruth Luckasson),

Reprinted: 12 Mental & Physical Disability L. Rep. 475-80 (1988). Available at JSTOR.

Reprinted: The Criminal Justice System And Mental Retardation: Defendants And Victims 245-78 (Conley et al.  eds., 1992)

Reprinted: 3 Capital Punishment: Litigating Capital Cases 59-78 (M. Koosed ed., 1996).