Usually phones are not allowed in the Supreme Court, but that changed on Tuesday, April 19, when 13 deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers were sworn in as members of the U.S. Supreme Court bar.

The deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers were able to use their phones to see a real-time transcript of the swearing-in proceedings provided by a special court reporter. The Supreme Court also provided two sign language interpreters. Phone were still banned for other attendees, and no photography was allowed.

“This event signals to the U.S. Supreme Court, legal professionals and the public at large that deaf and hard-of-hearing attorneys are capable of succeeding at all levels of the legal profession,” said Anat Maytal, a litigation associate in New York and president of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association. Maytal was also one of the lawyers being sworn in.

The Exclusivity of the Supreme Court Bar

Close to 4,000 lawyers are admitted to the Supreme Court bar each year. Most of them will never argue a case in front of the Court. It costs $200 to be a member of the bar, and in order to apply candidates need to both be a member of a state bar for three years and sponsored by two current Supreme Court bar members. Even though these lawyers may never argue a Supreme Court case, it is considered an honor to stand before the bar and be welcomed in person by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association (DHHBA) is an active organization of deaf, hard of hearing, and late-deafened attorneys, judges, law school graduates, law students and legal professionals. It has about 100 members and was formed in 2013.

The DHHBA was interested in participating in an event that would highlight the existence and success of deaf and hard-of-hearing attorneys, so last year it approached the Supreme Court about the mass swearing-in of some of its members and was able to arrange it. It is customary for attorneys to be admitted to the Supreme Court bar with a group, such as a professional organization or alumni of a university or service group.

Maytal estimates that there are fewer than 300 deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers who are currently practicing law nationally. Many face obstacles in attending law school, taking the bar exam and getting the accommodations they need to practice in courthouses.

The special event at the court showed that those with various challenges can still climb to the very top of their chosen profession.

A Deaf Lawyer at the Court
People with disabilities have been accommodated by the court in the past, according to the National Law Journal:

In 1982, long before passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, deaf lawyer Michael Chatoff argued before the court in Board of Education v. Rowley, a case testing whether a New York deaf student was entitled under the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1974 to a sign-language interpreter in all her academic classes.

 

At first, court officials tried to persuade Chatoff to let someone else make the argument, according to a chronicle of the struggles of deaf lawyers published in 2011. But he asked for and got a CART interpreter (transcriptionist) who typed what was being said so that Chatoff could read spoken questions from a computer screen, with about a four-second delay. The court ruled against him, setting a low standard for what the law required schools to provide.

 

“Although Chatoff was not successful in the Rowley case, his arguing the case was a source of great pride in the deaf community,” said John Stanton, a deaf lawyer who wrote the 2011 Valparaiso University Law Review article ‘Breaking Sound Barriers: How the Americans with Disabilities Act and Technology Have Enabled Deaf Lawyers to Succeed.’ “Gallaudet University’s library had an entire exhibit dedicated to Chatoff’s advocacy for 10-plus years after the case.”

The mass swearing-in, Stanton believes, makes it more likely another deaf lawyer will soon follow in Chatoff’s footsteps and argue before the court. And the day can’t be too distant when “we will also get our first deaf law clerk at the Supreme Court.”

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