Lessons from Judge David Tatel’s Guide Dog on Blindness and Vision

Lessons from Judge David Tatel’s Guide Dog on Blindness and Vision

Had Al Gore won the presidency in 2000, a lot of people thought, he would have put Judge David S. Tatel on the Supreme Court. The judge had a towering intellect, was a model judicial craftsman and, only incidentally, had been blind since his 30s.

But George W. Bush prevailed, with an assist from a closely divided Supreme Court. President Bush went on to appoint two members of the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., propelling it toward its current trajectory.

Judge Tatel served for 23 more years on the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia Circuit. He relied on people who would read to him, increasingly sophisticated technology and an astounding memory to produce a widely admired body of judicial work that included major opinions on voting rights, the environment and the internet.

He was for years reluctant to talk about his blindness. And judicial tact, he said, required him to suppress his increasing discomfort with the direction of the Supreme Court.

In “Vision,” a candid and moving memoir to be published next month, Judge Tatel weaves those two themes together. He discussed them over coffee at the kitchen table in his Washington apartment, with his guide dog, Vixen, looking on attentively.

They met in 2019, transforming Judge Tatel’s life. “Vixen liberated me physically and gave me a huge amount of independence,” he said. “But she also liberated me in the sense that she made it much more comfortable for me to talk about blindness.”

His condition is a product of a retinal disease first diagnosed when Judge Tatel, raised in a Washington suburb, was 15. It grew more severe with the passing years, and for a long time he tried to hide it.

“I was pretty good at covering it up publicly until 1980, when I started to use a cane,” he said. That was a major change, and it allowed people to help him.

The judge’s wife, Edie Tatel, noted another benefit. “You certainly get a different reaction,” she said, “when you bump into people.”

But he did not want his blindness to define him, and he said it influenced his judicial work only at the margins. “Maybe it helped in the sense that, at oral argument, I didn’t know whether a lawyer was well dressed or fat or ugly,” he allowed. “I don’t react to those signals.”

He recused himself from a case about whether the Treasury Department should do more to let visually impaired people distinguish paper bills of different denominations. “I didn’t have any doubt that I could decide the case,” he said, “but I was worried about the appearance.”

He added that he regretted not having disqualified himself from two other cases, involving visual art and architectural plans. Others described the evidence to him in great detail, he said, but, in retrospect, that was not enough.

“If I had those cases to do over,” he wrote, “I’d recuse myself.”

Judge Tatel’s memoir is set to be published next month.

His retirement from the bench last year liberated him in a second sense, he said, freeing him to question the direction of the Supreme Court.

“We have a court that’s unmoored from the principles of judicial restraint,” he said. “I don’t want to sound panicky or anything, but I think that’s a threat to our democratic values.”

Judge Tatel said his retirement was linked to a lesson he drew from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the bench despite calls for her to step down in time to let President Barack Obama name her successor.

“We had dinner here at this table several times,” he said. In the book, he described “her annoyance with commentators who were calling for her retirement.”

Justice Ginsburg’s contributions to the law will endure, he said. “But there’s no denying,” he wrote, “that her death in office ultimately contributed to Roe’s downfall,” with Justice Amy Coney Barrett — rushed onto the court by President Donald J. Trump and Senate Republicans — casting the decisive vote to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.

Judge Tatel, now 82, wrote that he had stepped down because he “didn’t want to take the chance that my seat might be filled by a president who’d campaigned on picking judges who would fulfill his campaign promises.”

But there was more. “I was also tired,” he wrote, “of having my work reviewed by a Supreme Court that seemed to hold in such low regard the principles to which I’ve dedicated my life.”

In 2012, he wrote the majority opinion for a divided three-judge appeals court panel in Shelby County v. Holder, rejecting a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The next year, by a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, effectively tearing out the heart of the law, which had been a signal achievement of the civil rights movement.

“The court reached the result it did through decidedly nonjudicial means,” Judge Tatel said. “It’s contrary to the Constitution. It’s contrary to its own precedent. And it’s completely disrespectful of congressional findings.”

“The result,” he said, “is threatening to democracy.”

The thread that runs through many of the Supreme Court’s major cases, including ones on abortion and affirmative action, Judge Tatel said, “is aggrandizing the Supreme Court’s own power, and it’s the one branch of government that’s unelected.”

As the interview wound down, Judge Tatel again focused on Vixen, who had to get to an appointment with a veterinarian, for an annual eye exam. He reflected on how the dog had changed him.

“When you have a guide dog, everybody wants to talk about it,” he said. “You’re immediately talking to everybody about the fact that you’re blind.”

That is fine with Judge Tatel. “If talking too much about my dog is a crime,” he wrote, “I plead guilty. I just love to talk about Vixen.”

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