UNM PROFESSOR JAMES W. ELLIS NAMED
'LAWYER OF THE YEAR'
University of New Mexico Law Professor James W. Ellis has been
named "Lawyer of the Year" by the National Law Journal
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
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.