Understanding that “psychology affects every single aspect of law,” Assistant Professor John B. Meixner Jr. is introducing an exciting new course this spring at the School of Law at the University of Georgia.

Titled “Law and the Mind,” the course combines law, psychology, and neuroscience, covering topics such as judge and jury decision-making, the psychological basis of criminal culpability, and the psychological justifications for various legal rules and doctrines.

This course is a natural fit for Meixner, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and a law degree from Northwestern University. His diverse background includes working at a large civil litigation firm, serving six years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan, and clerking at both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“I quickly learned, especially in the federal system, that almost everything important in criminal law happens at sentencing,” Meixner explained. “I was struck by the wide array of factors judges can consider at sentencing—not just the facts about the crime itself, but also the defendant’s background, such as their upbringing and life experiences.”

Given judges’ significant discretion, Meixner found it interesting—and concerning—that defense attorneys only sometimes emphasized the defendants’ backgrounds. “Sometimes, defendants were humanized well by their attorneys, and sometimes not at all,” he noted.

This led to one of Meixner’s current research projects, where he analyzes a large sample of federal sentencing briefs. He codes the different kinds of arguments for sentencing mitigation, quantifies the emphasis on each argument, and correlates this with judges’ sentencing decisions to understand what factors judges consider and how they weigh them.

For example, Meixner discovered that “when defendants make arguments about health-related mitigation—often things like untreated mental illness—judges’ sentencing decisions tended to be much lower, even when controlling for other factors.”

Joining the School of Law faculty in fall 2022, Meixner’s decision to come to Athens was multifaceted. Besides his wife securing a faculty position with the AU/UGA Medical Partnership, one of the main reasons they chose Georgia was the law school faculty. “I don’t think I came across any other faculty that had the same combination of intellectual strength and genuine kindness. It’s a unique group,” he said.

Meixner has also found that his evidence and criminal law students are not only smart and prepared but also sincerely inquisitive. “I knew they would be on point and ready, but I’ve been impressed by how curious they are about understanding why the law is structured the way it is and whether it should be different. They want to know more than just what they need to pass the bar and do their day-to-day jobs.”

Ultimately, Meixner aims to develop his students into clear, analytical thinkers because that is “what judges are looking for when they rule on an evidentiary issue or respond to a motion in criminal practice.”

He also hopes they become kind and moral citizens who have deeply considered why we have criminal law and how it should be structured. “That’s a hard topic because everyone has different intuitions about it,” Meixner said. “When you try to decipher the underlying rationales for punishment, you have to confront serious moral and philosophical questions about our goals for our communities and relationships.”

Meixner’s new course, “Law and the Mind,” offers a valuable opportunity to explore these deeper questions. With class enrollment at capacity, it seems that law students agree.

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