Blind Marylander named to D.C. Court of Appeals

June 21, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Washington lawyer David S. Tatel strolled up and down the National Mall at President Clinton's inauguration, remarking to his friends about the crowds, the color, the pageantry.

To his friends, the observations of this noted civil rights and education lawyer were nothing unusual. They are accustomed to what they say is his unusual vision, one that transcends eyesight and will serve him well if he is confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and becomes the first blind person to assume a judgeship this high in the federal system.

Yesterday, President Clinton nominated Mr. Tatel, who lost his eyesight as a young adult, to what is considered the second-most-powerful court in the nation and a grooming ground for the Supreme Court.

In fact, if confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Tatel, a Chevy Chase resident who grew up in Silver Spring, would fill the seat vacated last year by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of three high court justices who are alumni of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here.

Once heralded by a civil rights leader as "the conscience and the spearhead of integration," Mr. Tatel has made his mark representing school districts in efforts to forge desegregation plans that would still ensure high-quality education and adequate funding for inner-city schools. He has done work for both the Baltimore City and Montgomery County school districts.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who knows Mr. Tatel from his work with city schools, calls the 52-year-old lawyer "one of the country's most brilliant legal minds. He has certainly helped the cause of public education in America through his challenges to inequitable funding arrangements."

Mr. Tatel headed the civil rights office at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the late 1970s, and is now a partner at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson.

Highly respected in the legal community, Mr. Tatel is expected to breeze through confirmation. Even ideological opponents, such as Clint Bolick of the conservative Institute for Justice, remark on his "unquestionable" intellect and legal skill.

Mr. Bolick, however, says that the ground-breaking rulings Mr. Tatel won in school desegregation cases -- such as those that permit federal judges to order tax increases to pay for reforming discriminatory school districts -- gave courts too much power to effect social change.

"It gives me tremendous pause as to whether he'd be an impartial jurist or a results jurist," he adds.

But those who know him say that Mr. Tatel will be a fair, compassionate, nonideological judge, "sensitive to the changing face of America," says Paul L. Vance, superintendent of the Montgomery County schools.

To a person, friends and associates point out that Mr. Tatel's blindness is a mere footnote. "His blindness is about 15th in the way you'd describe him: 'Oh, and by the way, he's blind,' " says Sara-Ann Determan, a lawyer at his firm. The father of four college-age children, Mr. Tatel, who jogs, skis and water skis, began to lose his sight from retinitis pigmentosa in the late 1960s as a young Chicago lawyer.

"For David, all I can say is he just went on, absorbing this new situation virtually without breaking stride," says Alex Polikoff, a Chicago public-interest lawyer and friend. "David has an incredible ability to participate in life fully. How he does it, I don't know. But he does it."

Advocates for the blind say that, although there are several dozen blind judges -- most of whom, like former Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, lost their eyesight during their tenure -- there is still prejudice about the ability of the visually impaired to serve as judges.

In 1992, the appointment by President George Bush of Richard Casey, a blind New York lawyer, to a federal trial court was met with skepticism by the New York Times.

Mr. Casey, said a Times editorial, "pushes the outer boundaries of what the judicial system can accommodate. . . . The ability to make eye contact has almost universally been assumed indispensable for the task of trial judging." (With Mr. Bush's defeat, the Casey appointment never reached the confirmation stage.)

With Mr. Tatel appointed to an appellate, rather than trial, court, he will be dealing with written briefs and oral arguments by lawyers rather than witnesses, lawyers note. "His challenge will be the volume of paper," said Stephen Speicher, former head of the 200-member American Blind Lawyers Association. "He should be able to handle any amount of paper they throw at him, given the technology available."

Indeed, along with an assistant who reads to him, Mr. Tatel uses an optical scanner that reads documents in a synthetic voice, and a computer that reads aloud screens of copy. Mr. Tatel turns his scanner's speed so high that "to the untrained ear it sounds like gibberish," Mr. Polikoff says.

After law school, Mr. Tatel joined a Chicago firm and directed the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In that time, he represented the NAACP, which had been sued by merchants in Port Gibson, Miss., for holding an illegal boycott of their businesses. With a $1.2 million judgment looming against the civil rights group, Mr. Tatel convinced a federal court to bar a state court from collecting the bond, and is credited with saving the NAACP from bankruptcy.

In the 1970s, he directed the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and then joined Hogan & Hartson as head of the firm's community services, or pro bono, practice. Later, in the Carter administration, he revitalized HEW's civil rights office.

"He's a remarkable man," Ms. Determan said. "He'd be a remarkable man if he had 20/20 vision."

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