D.C. Lawyer Fought Exclusion of the Blind on Juries

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paul E. Kay, 71, a lawyer who helped force the D.C. Superior Court to stop excluding blind people from juries, died Jan. 7 at Sibley Memorial Hospital after a heart attack. He was a Washington resident.

Mr. Kay, who had been blind since youth, was rejected as a juror in 1991 and 1993 because of his blindness, although that disability was no handicap in his representation of clients in the same court.

In 1993, he persuaded D.C. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) to introduce a bill prohibiting the court from automatically barring blind people from jury duty.

Before the bill passed, a federal court acting on a lawsuit filed by a legally blind D.C. government employee ordered the D.C. Superior Court to change its rules.

Nathanson, who passed the bill after the court ruling, said in an interview yesterday: "I didn't realize blind people were excluded, had been excluded" from jury duty. "I wouldn't have known about it without" Mr. Kay.

As a criminal attorney, he was a member of the pool of attorneys who could be appointed by the court to represent indigent clients. But, he told the Braille Monitor, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind, although he had never lost a jury trial in Superior Court, he was not on its appointment list for felony trials, which he thought was unfair.

"The point I'm making is that you can get around sight," he said. "And, if a lawyer just presents a diagram and doesn't describe it, I wouldn't want that lawyer representing me. . . . In federal court, I'm a lawyer like any other person, and they appoint me to cases. I do my job, and nobody cares that I'm blind."

With his guide dog Smokey, Mr. Kay was a familiar presence in Washington's courthouses. When a local restaurant owner would not let Smokey enter his restaurant, Mr. Kay sued and won, then promptly donated the monetary settlement to the National Federation of the Blind.

Another time, he was randomly appointed to represent a deaf client. His friend and fellow lawyer David Zeiger said the judge had qualms about a blind lawyer representing a deaf client, but Mr. Kay gained the trust of the client, who insisted on retaining him. Mr. Kay won the case.

"Paul, who of course didn't drive, was a terror at representing people charged with driving while intoxicated," Zeiger said. "The cops would mumble their boilerplate to show probable cause . . . and Paul would imitate and visually dance around in front of jury. 'You mean you told him to stand on his left leg, raise his right leg and he couldn't do it?' Now Paul was fat, and he had the jury [laughing]. He was able to deflate those cops' [testimony] and do a sensational job as defender."

Paul Edward Knisbacher was born in Vienna, Austria, on Feb. 22, 1937. He and his family, who were Jews, fled Austria in January 1939 after the anti-Semitic Kristallnacht attacks the previous year.

The family took refuge in Belgium and London before moving to the United States in November 1940. When Mr. Kay's father became a U.S. citizen five years later, he changed the family name to Kay.

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