Jan. 7, 2003


University of New Mexico Law Professor James W. Ellis has been named "Lawyer of the Year" by the National Law Journal (NLJ).

The NLJ selects recipients for the award based on an attorney's "impact on the law and society." The 2001 recipient was U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

In February, Ellis successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court that the nation agreed executing people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court had ruled in 1989 that those executions were constitutional. Ellis represented Virginia death row inmate Daryl Atkins in the case Atkins v. Virginia.

The NLJ noted that Ellis not only convinced justices that a national consensus existed, he helped build it through his writing on mental health and the law, through his work with organizations such as the American Association on Mental Retardation and The ARC of the U.S., through numerous appearances before legislative and congressional committees and his prior friend-of-the court briefs filed in 13 U.S. Supreme Court cases.

While Ellis was working on an American Bar Association project in the 1980s to revise criminal standards for the mentally ill, the capital defense bar took notice and contacted him for help with their cases.

The clients, Ellis told NJR, "were individuals whose understanding was, in fact, so limited that it was inconceivable they deserved death."

Ellis credits the AAMR and The ARC, in particular, for leading the campaign to ban the death penalty for the retarded in the United States, in addition to attorneys and others who long trumpeted the cause.

The June Supreme Court decision, the NLJ noted, was "the culmination of 30 years of his work on behalf of the mentally retarded and mentally ill persons in the civil and criminal justice systems."

Ellis has served as president of the American Association on Mental Retardation. At UNM since 1976, he teaches constitutional rights, introduction to constitutional law, mental health and retardation law, rights of children and mental disability in criminal cases.