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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.

Paul Kay grew up in New York and graduated from the College of Insurance in Brooklyn. As a youngster, he had retinitis pigmentosa diagnosed and slowly lost his eyesight, until at age 20 he was totally blind. He considered blindness more of a nuisance than a handicap, said his sister, Elizabeth Kay Goldstein of Hackensack, N.J., his only surviving relative.

Throughout the 1960s, he worked as an independent insurance broker and was licensed as a masseur. In 1971, he enrolled in New York University law school and studied by using Braille books and tapes and relying on readers. When he graduated in 1974, Mr. Kay passed his oral bar exam on his first try.

Mr. Kay moved to Washington after law school to be a staff lawyer with the U.S. Maritime Administration, where he worked for 11 years. In 1985, he entered private practice, focusing on criminal law. Eight years later, he and Larry Povinelli became law partners.

He had been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1968 and the National Association of Blind Lawyers for 33 years. He was president of the Washington affiliate of the law group from 1978 to 1980.

He was elected to the North Cleveland Park Neighborhood Advisory Commission in 1993. He remained a loyal New York Yankees fan.

Self-sufficient and with a good sense of humor about himself, Mr. Kay enjoyed joking with friends about his disability. But he answered one serious question with the equivalent of a Zen koan, said his friend and fellow lawyer David Stringer.

"I asked him what a blind person sees when he closes his eyes at night," Stringer said. "Paul thought a minute and said, 'What does your hand see?' "

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