When a dozen lawyers rose together to be sworn into the Supreme Court bar Tuesday morning, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made a sweeping motion with his hands.
It translated in American Sign Language to: “Your motion is granted.”
Roberts learned to sign the phrase just for that occasion, Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.
That moving gesture alone made the admittance of 12 deaf and hard of hearing lawyers to the highest court in the land an historic moment. All were members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association and were from various parts of the country.
Among them was New York-based Teresa Curtin. For her first 20 years practicing law, Curtin said she would often have to explain to judges that she was not the defendant. She’d explain time and again that she was the lawyer and that the interpreter she brought was there to sign for her, not her client.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Curtin said. “I think the biggest challenge has been to get people to give me the opportunity.”
When Curtin was at Princeton University studying for her undergraduate degree, she spent her four years there learning by copying the notes of her peers, she said. By the time she went to New York University Law School, she had a sign language interpreter with her in her classes, which allowed her to fully engage.
When she graduated in 1988, she said, only a handful of deaf lawyers existed. Today, about 250 deaf or hard-of-hearing people are practicing law in the United States. The 12 who became members of the Supreme Court bar say they hope they’ll inspire other deaf students to pursue a legal career.
“We’re very proud to be here today because its about diversity,” Curtin said, who now works at Weitz & Luxenberg, a large firm in New York. “We don’t think it’s so much inspirational as it should be normal.”
They weren’t the first deaf lawyers to be admitted. In 1982, Michael Chatoff became the first deaf person ever to argue before the Supreme Court, using special technology that transcribed the justices’ questions.
While two interpreters were there Tuesday to sign the entire morning’s opinions and arguments for the group – including an arcane and complicated opinion on energy regulations read by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – most were able to follow along without them.
Many sat with their heads down, reading along on their mobile devices that were providing them real-time transcripts of the proceedings. Though technology remains forbidden inside the courtroom, they were granted the rare exception.
Advancements in such technology and passage of the American Disabilities Act in 1990, which mandated “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities, has made it easier for deaf lawyers to practice. But there are still discrimination barriers. Curtin said some lawyers are scared to have an interpreter of any kind present for fear their words won’t be presented accurately.
“Some deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers doubt that they can actually practice law, said Howard Rosenblum, who also was sworn in to the bar. “But the real practice is based on intellect and deaf people have that in spades.”