President's Column

The president of the Consortium of Social Science Associations recently lamented that scientists were not influential enough in using their research to affect public policy. But for more than 50 years, APA has been a frequent and forceful participant in the judicial and legislative process. Among other methods, APA has influenced public policy by submitting amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs before judicial tribunals, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and by adopting resolutions and policy statements passed by APA's Council of Representatives.

Amicus briefs are a visible and effective means for educating legal decision-makers about social science data relevant to the issues of our time. The resolution of cases in the nation's courts often affects social policy well beyond the concerns of the litigants who bring a particular case. Often, the parties are ill-equipped or even disinclined to provide the courts with data and arguments essential to proper resolution of the questions before them. Amicus briefs permit nonparties such as APA to fill the vacuum by providing crucial information or authority.

As of this writing, APA has contributed 147 amicus briefs, with 58 of those filed in the U.S. Supreme Court. The first brief APA submitted was in Jenkins v. United States in 1962 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a landmark decision holding that psychologists are competent to serve as expert witnesses concerning the nature and existence of mental illnesses. Seventeen years later, APA filed its first amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court — Hutchinson v. Proxmire (1979), a case in support of a psychologist demeaned by a U.S. senator for the subject matter of his research.

When I became APA's first general counsel in 1979, I was interviewed by the Monitor about my new role. I said, "I would like to see APA get involved in cases in which the professional person or scientist is not the focus, but which focus on some issues that psychology knows about." The idea was to show the courts what psychology knows by "presenting information in a neutral, objective, coherent way to the court so that it can resolve a problem on an empirical basis rather than on a common sense...approach, or on the basis of precedent that may be grounded in false beliefs." During my 10-year tenure, APA filed 50 amicus briefs on a wide variety of topics, and that tradition continues to the present day.

In addition to specifically benefiting psychologists' practice and research interests, APA has entered cases that further the public interest more generally, such as cases involving women's reproductive rights, affirmative action, child abuse, copyright, criminal defendants' rights to mental health experts, the death penalty, employment discrimination, the environment, the rights of those with intellectual disabilities, false confessions, same-sex marriage, juvenile sentencing, and the use, validity and security of psychological tests. For example, citing research on adolescent brain and emotional development, APA was influential recently in convincing the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors.

It is essential that the positions APA asserts in its amicus briefs and adopts as association policy are undergirded by valid science. If we are to maintain the integrity and reputation of APA as it seeks to influence relevant public policy, what it proffers to the courts must be supported by methodologically sound research. We seem to be succeeding in this endeavor. In a survey of U.S. Supreme Court clerks published in the Journal of Law & Politics, a significant percentage specifically cited APA's briefs (along with those of the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association) as "consistently trustworthy" (Lynch, 2004, p. 49).