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Judge David Tatel on becoming the blind role model he never had


If you showed up to arguments in the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court near the end of Judge David Tatel's career, you might have noticed something unusual before the judge entered the room. On his chair, there was a dog treat. A law clerk put it there each day so Tatel's guide dog, Vixen, would know which seat the judge was assigned to. Judge Tatel recently retired from the court after nearly three decades on the bench, and he has written a book called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice."

Judge Tatel, it is good to have you and your regal German Shepherd, Vixen, here with us today. Welcome.

DAVID TATEL: It's a pleasure to be here, Ari. And I love your introduction (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you. When you were a teenager, you were diagnosed with a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which caused your blindness. And for decades, as your vision deteriorated, you went to extraordinary lengths to hide your disability. Can you give us an example of the kinds of steps you would take?

TATEL: Sure. For example, the first real sign of the eye disease is night blindness. The story was, little David can't see at night. And no one thought it was anything unusual. They told me, eat carrots and things like that. But it got worse and worse. And one way I accommodated is, when I'd go to the movies with my buddies on a Saturday, I couldn't see anything. And so instead of saying to one of my friends, hey, Bob (ph), would you get the popcorn? I can't see - since I didn't want to admit that. I got the popcorn myself, and I did it by counting the seats as I walked down towards the aisle. And then I would turn, and I'd count the rows going up to the popcorn stand. I'd get my popcorn, and I would find my way back, counting the rows - 6, 5, 4, 3 - turn left - 5, 4, 3, 2 - into my seat. So that was one of my early subterfuges, and I had many more.

SHAPIRO: Even as you became more and more accomplished...


SHAPIRO: ...And attained the greatest heights of the legal world, you would remove references to blindness from your Wikipedia page.

TATEL: Right.

SHAPIRO: You would ask people introducing you, or even nominating you for incredible positions - you know, when Bill Clinton nominated you to the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court in 1994, he did not mention your blindness.

TATEL: Right.

SHAPIRO: And you write, I fooled myself into thinking that my blindness was irrelevant to my work...

TATEL: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...And my worth. So what changed?

TATEL: One is I think it's just experience. And after 30 years on the D.C. Circuit, I was comfortable that I was known as a judge - not as the blind judge. But two other things happened that I think were really significant. One was getting a guide dog. So for years, before I had the dog, I used a cane. People don't come up to you and want to talk about the cane.

SHAPIRO: Right (laughter).

TATEL: When you have a dog, everybody wants to talk about that dog. And so if you're a blind person using a dog, it's really, really hard to hide from being blind. And besides, I - what I discovered was that I love talking to people about my dog. Edie, my wife, bought me a sign that sits on my desk. It says, ask me about my dog.

SHAPIRO: I have to tell you, you write about many very important consequential legal developments and work you did, but the details of the book that I keep talking to people about are the incredible stories...

TATEL: (Laughter)

SHAPIRO: ...Of your guide dog.

TATEL: Right.

SHAPIRO: I don't know if that makes me shallow or what, but (laughter)...

TATEL: No, I think it makes you a very serious person.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. Thank you, Judge Tatel.

TATEL: I think the world would be better off if we all had dogs. So that was one thing. The second thing that was totally unanticipated by me is how deeply the memoir would require me to think about myself, my work. And as I thought about blindness in connection with judging, it became much more comfortable to talk about it.

SHAPIRO: Well, you expressed this fear throughout the book that if you had embraced and acknowledged your disability, either you would not have been given the opportunities you were or you would have been given them and tokenized. And in hindsight, do you think that's true?

TATEL: That is really a hard question. Role models were very important in my life, but I had no blind role models. And I wonder whether I would have been more open and comfortable with it had I known that blind people could succeed at the highest levels. Consequence of all that is that, as I explained in the book, I passed up lots of opportunities to be the kind of role model for young blind people that I never had.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So the book does have these two threads...

TATEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Your blindness and the judiciary - your experience...

TATEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...On the judiciary and your deep concerns about the Supreme Court in this moment. You have a reputation as a consensus-builder - as someone who works well with judges of different ideological backgrounds. So I was surprised at how much passion and concern for the country comes through in your writing about the Supreme Court today. What is your critique?

TATEL: Courts, unlike the other two branches of government, are unelected. They're not accountable politically, yet they have enormous potential power over the other two branches of government. My concern about the courts in the past decade - especially the Supreme Court - is that it is less than faithful to the principles of judicial restraint that have, over the years, successfully confined the courts to the judicial process.

SHAPIRO: Listeners might think that this is liberal sour grapes about a conservative majority. You quote a judge you served with, Tom Griffith, who was appointed by a Republican president, who describes you as a judge who, quote, "played it straight, without partisanship or ideology." So is your complaint just that Donald Trump got to appoint enough justices to secure a conservative supermajority?

TATEL: No. Obviously, I am concerned with the outcome of the election, but many of the opinions that I criticize - I criticize the process by which the court got there, not the result. For example, in one of the big environmental cases, the court could have prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing President Obama's Clean Power Plan simply by interpreting the statute under the normal standards. It didn't need to invent a new doctrine. That's true in the voting rights cases also, whereas those results could have been achieved in most of those cases by means that were far more judicial and less threatening to the separation of powers.

SHAPIRO: Your wife, Edie, came to this interview with you today. And you have been together -what? - more than 60 years. You met in college?

TATEL: Almost 60 years.

SHAPIRO: Almost 60 years.

TATEL: Next year it will be 60 years.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So she knows this story almost as well as you do. If I were to call her in from the other side of the glass - which I'm not going to do - but if I were to call her in here and say, what's Judge Tatel leaving out? What is your husband missing or mischaracterizing? What would she say?

TATEL: (Laughter) Well, that's a really interesting question. You know, Ari, Edie and I largely wrote this book together. I would draft. She would rewrite. She would work on it. Are there things that are not in the book? Absolutely. But I think we both agree that what isn't in the book shouldn't be in the book. I feel as if this is a joint undertaking that I hope she's as happy with as I am. I say in the prologue of this book - and this is not an overstatement, Ari - my life, much less this book, would not have been possible without Edie.

SHAPIRO: We've been speaking with retired Judge David Tatel. His new book, "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice," is out now. Judge Tatel, thanks to you and Edie and Vixen for coming in today.

TATEL: Thank you, Ari. My pleasure to be here.

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Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.