Feature

In 2012, the courts considered three issues of great relevance to psychology: juvenile sentencing, affirmative action and marriage equality. To ensure that psychological research was considered in the various rulings, APA filed several amicus briefs.

Here's a look at the psychological research APA presented.

Juvenile sentencing

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment forbids a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of homicide. The ruling is in line with APA's amicus brief, which cites research documenting that adolescents' brains are not yet fully developed and, as a result, teens can be more reckless and impulsive than adults.

The issue before the Supreme Court involved two cases in which the defendants were 14-year-old boys: Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. The cases include the same issues discussed in two previous Supreme Court cases in which APA also filed amicus briefs. The first, Roper v. Simmons (2005), held that imposing the death penalty on defendants under age 18 violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The second, Graham v. Florida (2010), held that giving life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide offenses committed by defendants under age 18 also violated the Eighth Amendment.

APA's brief for the cases before the court in 2012 stated that a sentence without parole violates the Eighth Amendment because juveniles' immaturity, vulnerability and changeability make them less culpable than adults. "Research shows that you cannot predict what an adult is going to be like based on what he was like when he was 14," says Laurence Steinberg, PhD, of Temple University, who has conducted extensive research in the area. "The juvenile deserves a chance at being rehabilitated."

APA's brief highlighted research showing that adolescents are inherently more impulsive, more short-sighted and more susceptible to peer influence. "They are not as responsible, therefore, less punishable," says Steinberg. The brief also emphasized adolescents' ability to change as they mature.

Steinberg notes that the decision does not ban a life sentence without parole. "The juvenile can still get a life sentence without parole," he says.

Affirmative action

In the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the University of Texas at Austin (UT) can use race as a factor in deciding whom they admit to the university.

In the case, Abigail Fisher, a white Texan, filed a lawsuit after she was denied admission to UT, arguing that the university discriminated against her because of her race. She asserted that under UT's admissions policy, students with lesser credentials had been admitted in her place.

In August, APA filed a brief in support of UT, arguing that the government's interest in promoting diversity in higher education had not changed since Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 case that upheld the University of Michigan Law School's limited use of race in its admission policies to increase diversity. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that racial diversity in higher education was a "compelling governmental interest." APA's brief specifically provides the court with relevant research from 79 peer-reviewed studies — most of which have been conducted since Grutter. Some of these new studies show that an underrepresentation of minority groups inhibits students' academic performance and cognitive function and fosters prejudice. The brief also cited research findings that subconscious racial bias interferes with the education of nonminority students.

"A major body of work … shows that concerns about being negatively stereotyped in a given context lead to disruptive apprehension and subsequently poorer performance," says James M. Jones, PhD, director of the University of Delaware's Center for the Study of Diversity, who worked on the APA brief. "Underrepresentation exacerbates those feelings and erodes a sense of belonging."

The Supreme Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in October and is expected to rule by summer.

Marriage equality

APA filed briefs in three U.S. Circuit Courts challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." DOMA requires the federal government to disregard same-sex marriages that are valid under state law and denies same-sex spouses the federal benefits granted to opposite-sex spouses.

APA filed its most recent amicus brief on the DOMA provisions in Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management. In this case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco denied Karen Golinski health benefits for her same-sex spouse, who had been her partner for 20 years before marrying when marriage for same-sex couples was legalized in California. The court cited the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, as requiring this denial of federal benefits that are available to heterosexual California couples.

In its brief, APA cited psychological research that bolsters its position that same-sex couples should be entitled to the same benefits as opposite-sex couples. Homosexuality, APA says, is a normal expression of human sexuality, is generally not chosen and is highly resistant to change.

The brief also discussed research on the nature of same-sex relationships, the role of child-rearing and the stigma that results from denying the use of the term "marriage" to same-sex unions. For example, the brief cited psychological research showing that same-sex parents are not any less fit or capable than heterosexual parents, and that their children are as well-adjusted as other children.

The Defense of Marriage Act makes the judgment that same-sex couples are "less deserving of a society's full recognition than are heterosexual couples by linking benefits to its exclusive definition of marriage," says Clinton W. Anderson, PhD, who directs APA's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office.

On Oct. 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in a 2–1 ruling.


Harriet Edleson is a writer in New York City.