Amicus Brief by Distinguished Professor Jim Ellis and UNM Law Team Receives Media Attention

June 9, 2014


A friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the petitioner in Hall vs. Florida by University of New Mexico School of Law Distinguished Professor Jim Ellis and a team of UNM Law faculty and students received attention from national as well as local news media. The brief was instrumental in obtaining the recent Supreme Court ruling on how states can diagnose intellectual disability in capital cases.

National Media

Richard Wolf, Supreme Court correspondent for USA Today, ran a story the day before the Supreme Court hearing. In "Court to Reopen Debate Over Mentally Disabled," Ellis was quoted discussing the standard error of measurement in IQ testing.

Nina Totenberg, NPR correspondent for legal affairs, interviewed Ellis in a March 3 story titled "With Death Penalty, How Should States Define Mental Disability?" The story was written the same day the case was argued before the Supreme Court. Totenberg describes the case and quotes Ellis:

Florida's statute, as interpreted by the state supreme court, sets the definition of developmental disability at an IQ score of 70 or below. With anything higher, the defendant cannot put on other evidence to show he is intellectually disabled. Moreover, the state does not allow use of the standard error of measurement that is deemed inherent in IQ tests.

Hall's various test scores added up to an average of more than 70, but no more than 75, meaning that he would qualify as having a disability if the state had used the standard five-point error of measurement. Without that statistical norm, however, Hall's lawyers were barred from putting on any other evidence of disability — for example, school records that consistently identified Hall as being mentally retarded.

"Florida's position is inconsistent with the views of all the mental disability organizations and professional organizations that are involved in the definition of mental retardation," says Jim Ellis, a longtime advocate for people with mental disabilities. He has also filed a brief in the case.

Allowing states to redefine "mental retardation" in defiance of professional standards, he argues, is nothing more than a way to undo the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling.

Ellis was interviewed by Huffington Post with host Ricky Camilleri in a segment called "SCOTUS Strikes Down Florida’s IQ Law." Guests for the 22 minute interview also include Dr. Kevin, Director and Owner, Institute for Applied Psychometrics, and Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The interview was also posted on AOL: "Is SCOTUS Close to Abolishing Death Penalty with Recent Florida Case?"

Marcia Coyle, Chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal, covering the U.S. Supreme Court and national legal issues, wrote an article on May 27th called "Justices Reject Florida’s IQ Test for Death Penalty:"

"The direct impact is only on Florida and those handful of states that have adopted this rigid and arbitrary rule," said James Ellis of the University of New Mexico School of Law, who argued and won the 2002 decision.

"But, more broadly, the way in which the majority opinion makes clear that in making Atkins decisions courts have to be open to a wider range of evidence about whether this person has intellectual disability, including evidence about impaired functioning, may have implications in states beyond the handful who are clearly out of compliance today," he said.

The Tampa Bay Times ran a story by Dan DeWitt, Hernando Times Columnist, called "U.S. Supreme Court overturns death sentence of intellectually disabled killer" with the following: "James Ellis, a University of New Mexico law professor who filed a friend of the court brief in the Hall case, said the problem is the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of state law, not the law itself."

Local Media

Locally, the story appeared locally in a May 28th article called "UNM Team Had Role in Court Ruling" by staff writer Mike Bush in the Albuquerque Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

A University of New Mexico law professor and nine of his students played a pivotal role in Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Florida law that set a minimum IQ of 70 as a benchmark in determining whether a convicted murderer can be executed.

Distinguished Professor Jim Ellis of the UNM School of Law, three other faculty members and the student volunteers prepared a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Freddie Lee Hall in Hall vs. Florida, which was argued before the high court in March. At issue was whether the Florida law's refusal to accept the scientific error of measurement in IQ testing might lead to the execution of intellectually disabled individuals convicted of murder.

After the decision was announced, Ellis said the legal team is "very gratified that the court endorsed the position we had taken on behalf of the national disability organizations that all evidence needs to be considered."

The high court sent the case back to state courts to determine again Hall's level of intellectual deficiency. The justices noted his inability to function socially and the "horrible" childhood he had suffered through, Ellis said.

Faculty Row, "The Official Home of America’s Top Faculty," posted the Albuquerque Journal story, retitling it as "UNM Influences Supreme Court Ruling."