Office of the General Counsel secures psychology’s important role in key court decisions

Courts considered psychological research and findings when reviewing several landmark cases.

APA filed several amicus briefs in 2012 to ensure courts consider psychological research when reviewing issues of juvenile sentencing, affirmative action and marriage equality.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment forbids a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of homicide. The issue before the court involved two cases in which the defendants were 14-year-old boys: Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. APA’s brief argued that a life sentence without parole violates the Eighth Amendment because juveniles’ immaturity, vulnerability and changeability make them less culpable than adults. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional as they ignore the unique developmental attributes of youth. APA’s brief was cited in both the majority and dissenting opinions.

APA filed a brief with the U.S Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which focused on whether race should be a factor in deciding university admissions. APA's brief in part provided research from peer-reviewed studies showing how 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. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by summer 2013.

In the past year, APA filed two research-based briefs in appellate courts regarding same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), bringing to 15 the number of briefs that APA has filed on the issue. DOMA defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and precludes federal marriage-related benefits  to same-sex couples who are legally married in states that allow same-sex marriage. APA’s briefs cited psychological research supporting its position that same-sex couples should be entitled to the same benefits as opposite-sex couples. The briefs discussed findings 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. The briefs also cited psychological research showing that same-sex parents are as fit and capable as heterosexual parents, and that their children are as well-adjusted as other children.

On Dec. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court chose to address two appellate decisions related to marriage equality. The Court accepted for review United States v. Windsor from the Second Circuit as the vehicle to resolve whether Section 3 of DOMA violates guarantees of equal protection. The Court also will consider Hollingsworth v. Perry involving the validity of California’s Proposition 8, a voter initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as between two people of opposite sexes, after the state’s highest court found a constitutional right to marriage for same-sex couples. APA filed amicus briefs in both of these cases and will revise these briefs for filing and consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.