Professor Jim Ellis Promoted to Distinguished Professor of Law

August 17, 2011


Professor Jim Ellis has been promoted to Distinguished Professor, the highest faculty rank at the University of New Mexico. This prestigious designation is reserved for professors who have demonstrated outstanding achievements and are nationally and internationally renowned as scholars.

Since Ellis joined the faculty in 1976, he has methodically created the academic study of the law of developmental disability. Before he devoted himself to it, the treatment of people with mental disabilities in the United States existed in an intellectual vacuum.

Ellis identified the problem of the law’s inattention to developmentally disabled people and made that inattention an issue with which law was forced to grapple. Because of his pioneering work, lawmakers can no longer ignore the special ways in which legal rules and institutions impact people with developmental disabilities, or ignore the responsibility of the law for inhumane features of that impact. Through his scholarship, Ellis has changed the legal landscape for people with disabilities in far-reaching, profound and enduring ways.

On the front lines
Along with his scholarship, Ellis has drafted model legislation and tirelessly testified before state legislatures across the country in support of bills to protect and advance the rights of people with developmental disabilities. He has been recruited to volunteer his services as counsel of record writing amicus briefs on behalf of major national mental health organizations in virtually every case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court involving the rights of people with mental disabilities since 1985.

A capstone victory came when he wrote the main brief and made the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Daryl Atkins in Atkins v. Virginia. (2002). It was the first time Ellis, who prefers his behind-the-scenes role, argued before any court. In Atkins, he succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court that there was a national consensus against inflicting the death penalty upon people with mental disability.

A unique student experience
Ellis routinely assembles a team of students and faculty members as an informal seminar to help participate in drafting the amicus briefs he undertakes. His willingness to embrace this teaching moment during the pressure of tight deadlines, as well as juggling other classes is a remarkable gift to the law school.

“It’s almost as if Jim thought about how enriching such an experience would have been to him as a law student when he attended Boalt Hall at Berkeley,” said Professor Chris Fritz, an occasional participant in these seminars. “For more than 25 years, Jim has made an unparalleled educational opportunity available to our students at UNM that does not exist anywhere else in the country.”

For his steadfast devotion, Ellis has received many honors, including being named Lawyer of the Year in 2002 by the National Law Journal, the Paul Hearne Award for Disability Advocacy from the American Bar Association, the Call to Action Award by the ARC of the United States and the Champion of Justice Award by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He was also recognized by the National Historic Trust on Mental Retardation as one of 36 significant individuals in the field of mental retardation in the 20th century. In 2007, the UNM Board of Regents presented Ellis with a Meritorious Service Award, a rarely bestowed honor given to staff and faculty members in recognition of extraordinary and distinguished service to the University.

"Jim Ellis simply is a national treasure,” said Dean Kevin Washburn. “We are lucky to have had him changing the world from his perch here at UNM for so many years."

Additional UNM professors promoted to the rank of Distinguished Professor in 2011 were:

  • Miguel Gandert, communication and journalism, College of Arts & Sciences;
  • Theodore Jojola, community and regional planning, School of Architecture and Planning;
  • Enrique Lamadrid, Spanish and Portuguese, College of Arts & Sciences;
  • Virginia Scharff, history, College of Arts & Sciences;
  • Christopher Shultis, music, College of Fine Arts.