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Use of IQ in the United States legal system

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act generally prohibits employment practices that are unfair or discriminatory. One provision of Title VI, 42 USC 2000(e)(2)(h), specifically provides that it is not an "unlawful employment practice for an employer to give and to act upon the results of any professionally developed ability test provided that such test, its administration or action upon the results is not designed, intended or used to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin." This statute was interpreted by the Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 US 424 (1971). In Griggs, the Court ruled that the reliance solely on a general IQ test that was not found to be specifically relevant to the job at issue was a discriminatory practice where it had a "disparate impact" on hiring. The Court gave considerable weight in its ruling to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation interpreting Section 2002(e)(2)(h)'s reference to a "professionally developed ability test" to mean "a test which fairly measures the knowledge or skills required by the particular job or class of jobs which the applicant seeks, or which fairly affords the employer a chance to measure the applicant's ability to perform a particular job or class of jobs." In other words, the use of any particular test would need to be shown to be relevant to the particular job or class of jobs at issue.

In the educational context, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted similar state and federal statutes to require that IQ Tests not be used in a manner that was determinative of tracking students into classes designed for the mentally retarded. Larry P. v. Riles, 793 F.2d 969 (9th Cir. 1984). The court specifically found that the tests involved were designed and standardized based on an all-white population, and had not undergone a legislatively mandated validation process. In addition, the court ruled that predictive validity for a general population is not sufficient, since the rights of an individual student were at issue, and emphasized that had the tests not been treated as controlling but instead used as part of a thorough and individualized assessment by a school psychologist a different result would have obtained.

The Supreme Court of the United States has utilized IQ test results during the sentencing phase of some criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court case of Atkins v. Virginia, decided June 20, 2002, held that executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In Atkins the court stated that

"It appears that even among those States that regularly execute offenders and that have no prohibition with regard to the mentally retarded, only five have executed offenders possessing a known IQ less than 70 since we decided Penry. The practice, therefore, has become truly unusual, and it is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it."
In overturning the Virginia Supreme Court's holding, the Atkins opinion stated that petitioner's IQ result of 59 was a factor making the imposition of capital punishment a violation of his eighth amendment rights. In the opinion's notes the court provided some of the facts relied upon when reaching their decision

"At the sentencing phase, Dr. Nelson testified: "Atkins' full scale IQ is 59. Compared to the population at large, that means less than one percentile…. Mental retardation is a relatively rare thing. It's about one percent of the population." App. 274. According to Dr. Nelson, Atkins' IQ score "would automatically qualify for Social Security disability income." Id., at 280. Dr. Nelson also indicated that of the over 40 capital defendants that he had evaluated, Atkins was only the second individual who met the criteria for mental retardation. Id., at 310. He testified that, in his opinion, Atkins' limited intellect had been a consistent feature throughout his life, and that his IQ score of 59 is not an "aberration, malingered result, or invalid test score.

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