University of New Mexico School of Law Distinguished Professor Jim Ellis and a team of UNM law faculty and students were instrumental in obtaining a recent Supreme Court ruling on how states can diagnose intellectual disability in capital cases.

The amicus brief Ellis and his UNM Law team filed in Hall v. Florida was to determine whether Florida’s insistence on ignoring the scientifically-necessary standard error of measurement in IQ testing would allow people with an intellectual disability to be executed, contrary to the ban set out in Atkins v. Virginia, a case Ellis successfully argued in 2002.

“It was gratifying that the Court reaffirmed its commitment to protect individuals with intellectual disability from the death penalty,” Ellis said. “All the hard work done by the members of our team helped the Court understand the technical issues involved, but also the reality of what this disability means in the lives of individuals like Mr. Hall.”

The amicus brief represents five professional and advocacy organizations in the fields of intellectual disability and disability rights. “Part of this case hinged on fairly esoteric information, such as details about correct scoring in psychological testing, which we explained in our brief,” said Ann M. Delpha, a staff attorney, who coordinated the project. The brief outlines the definition of mental retardation, examines the role of IQ testing, clarifies the role of deficits in adaptive functioning, and examines the issue of “measurement of error” in determining a person’s IQ.

Learning the advocacy process at the highest level
Once the petition was granted by the Court, Ellis had only about six weeks to recruit the team, conduct the research, and plan, organize, write and edit the brief. Delpha and Professors Steven Homer, April Land and Carol Suzuki helped Ellis draw up the brief and served as co-counsel with him in representing the disability organizations.

Delpha also coordinated the roles of students Lynne Canning, Emily Carey, Kylie Cook, Martin Juarez, Jason Kerkmans, Brian Moore, Kari Olson, Van Snow and Xochitl Liana Torres. The students helped with legal and psychological research, records review and checking citations.

It was the third time Juarez worked on a brief for the Supreme Court with Ellis. “A death penalty case puts your life into perspective,” says Juarez. “While you are working on those cases, you are constantly aware that, ultimately, someone will live or die. You carry that responsibility with you as you work on the brief.”

The student volunteers spent hours scrutinizing each word on the brief with faculty while juggling their courses and homework, through final exams, and during semester breaks. “I really appreciated how we, as students, were able to participate collaboratively in every step of the process, from researching state legislation, to reviewing the brief, line by line, word by word, to meticulously checking citations,” Canning said.

Seeing the Supreme Court in action
Some of the UNM law team went to see the case argued before the Supreme Court on March 3. “The intimacy of the courtroom surprised me,” Snow said. “We were so close to the justices and to the arguing attorneys that we could read their body language and see their facial expressions.” 

Kerkmans added, “The weight of the issue permeated the atmosphere. Everyone in that courtroom was aware of the consequences, creating a noticeable density in the air.”

Reflecting on the overall experience, Kerkmans said, “We learned every facet of constructing a brief– from the painstaking process of writing and editing a brief that will be scrutinized at the highest level, to conducting an oral argument, to managing a case with different amici. It’s an invaluable experience and we’ll be able to apply what we learned to any case or project.”

“You don’t have to attend Georgetown or Harvard to have the truly unique experience of working on a brief for the Supreme Court,” Olson said. “You can get that experience right here at UNM.” 

For this team of students at the University of New Mexico School of Law, the intense experience was truly a matter of life or death as well as an incomparable introduction to their legal careers.