APA’s members have roles to play at almost every stage of the amicus process, which begins when a brief is proposed. After the proposal is screened for the appropriateness of APA participation, APA’s executive management group reviews the request. Promising candidates are forwarded to APA’s Committee on Legal Issues, which reviews them and makes recommendations to APA’s board of directors. The board then makes the final decision on whether APA should prepare and file a brief.

“As psychologists, we’re often studying legally relevant topics,” explains committee co-chair Eve M. Brank, JD, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “Justices are not traditionally trained as social scientists, so this is a service we can provide to them.”

What the committee looks for is whether there’s sound research in the area, whether there are APA members who could serve as expert consultants and whether APA has filed similar briefs before. If APA has filed similar amicus briefs in the past, another consideration is whether the research used has been updated, adds co-chair Lori C. Thomas, JD, PhD, a private practitioner in Devon, Pa.

Once a potential brief is identified, one key role for members is to help direct APA to the most relevant scientific research. In the Graham case, for instance, Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, PhD, not only helped assemble the evidence but also helped ensure the findings were presented accurately and persuasively.

But psychologists don’t just help with the research aspects of the briefs. Psychology professor Brian L. Wilcox, PhD, director of the University of Nebraska’s Center on Children, Families and the Law, reviewed drafts of the Graham amicus brief and helped APA with strategic decisions about how to present the research.

“Part of writing a good brief is knowing what kind of arguments are likely to appeal to justices who may be key votes in a case,” Wilcox explains. “Often you’re tailoring your brief to one or two justices who may be the tipping point for a decision.”

You don’t need specialized legal skills or experience to help, Wilcox adds: All you need are psychological expertise and a desire to see the public educated and justice done.

“Most of the public will never know that APA had a role in these decisions, but they will read the rationale as described by reporters summarizing the opinions in these cases and carry those arguments away with them,” says Wilcox.

For the individuals affected by cases like Graham and Roper, he adds, APA’s intervention has helped save lives.

“APA has been successful in changing laws,” he says. “It’s had a huge impact on people’s lives.”

For a list of APA amicus briefs and instructions on how to submit a proposal for a brief, visit APA Amicus Brief Listing By Year

—R.A. Clay