The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge David Tatel’s lack of eyesight never defined him, but his blindness is woven into the culture of the influential appeals court in D.C.

Judge David S. Tatel stands at his desk inside his chambers with his service dog, Vixen. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

When Judge David S. Tatel informed President Biden of his plan to step back from the federal bench this year, he closed his letter on a personal note: “My guide dog, Vixen, is pleased to know that First Dogs Champ and Major are also German Shepherds.”

In nearly three decades on the appeals court in Washington, Tatel’s lack of eyesight has never defined him. But his blindness — and more recently the attentive German shepherd at his side — is now woven into the culture of the courthouse where Tatel has been at the epicenter of consequential cases affecting major aspects of American life.

The latest formal portrait of the court’s black-robed judges features Vixen in the front row.

“For a judge who can’t see, he sees everything. Not just what is going on in the case before him, but how it matters in the future,” said Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas and close observer of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. “It’s hard to think of a judge who is more highly respected on the federal appellate bench even by those who disagree with him.”

His plan at age 79 to take a lighter caseload or “senior status” once Biden installs his successor winds down the career of a leading, liberal-leaning voice on the bench that has shaped laws affecting voting rights, the environment, Internet regulations and press freedoms.

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Tatel’s tenure on one of the most influential courts in the country has often thrust him into high-profile disputes involving the government: New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s battle to protect a confidential source; the troubled military trials at Guantánamo Bay; and more recently, his unsuccessful attempt to block the Trump administration from reviving the federal death penalty.

“After so many years in D.C. in the thick of a lot of controversies, it would be easy to be cynical. But he’s never wavered in his faith in the system he’s a part of,” said Goodwin Liu, one of Tatel’s former law clerks who is a justice on the California Supreme Court. “He has always believed he could persuade his colleagues with rational argument and is open to persuasion himself.”

During oral arguments in the wood-paneled fifth-floor courtroom, it is easy to forget that Tatel is blind. He asks penetrating questions and often has a better handle on details from the dregs of thick case files than some of the attorneys arguing before him. The signs are subtle — an elbow from a colleague guiding him to his seat or the request from a fellow judge to the arguing attorney to read a specific statute out loud.

Retired judge Thomas B. Griffith, who served with Tatel for 15 years, never considered Tatel’s blindness a limitation, but rather envied how his work seemed enhanced by technology. On the bench, Tatel uses a small Braille computer, listening through one earpiece as he clicks through his meticulous notes.

“Our joke in chambers was, I want one of those little black boxes because it’s got all the right answers, it asks all the right questions and has all the right record citations,” Griffith said. “It’s just amazing.”

'The brain adapts'

Tatel’s vision first posed a problem when he played baseball as a kid in Silver Spring. Diagnosed with a retinal disease at the National Eye Institute at 15, he stopped driving his third year of law school at the University of Chicago. His eyesight deteriorated dramatically during a family ski trip when he was nearly 30.

Tatel’s wife Edie, and later the couple’s four children, became his “audible artists” — reading to him, describing the world and guiding him on hikes and down ski slopes.

But after Tatel lost his eyesight, his memory improved prodigiously. The system of workarounds and network of support he developed, in addition to advances in technology and his superior memory, gave Tatel something akin to a superpower.

Early on, when he was a lawyer in private practice in Washington, Tatel needed everything read to him — newspapers, the mail, legal briefs. Now his desk is a tangle of cords for devices that include the Braille computer that converts text to speech and an oversized iPod-like audio reader.

The computer speaks to him in a robotic, male voice that reads everything including Roman numerals and punctuation marks while mispronouncing certain words. The judge listens at a clip four, sometimes five, times the normal speed, and tears through three newspapers daily and at least half a dozen books a month.

“The brain adapts,” he said.

By necessity, Tatel’s law clerks read drafts of opinions out loud and make edits as they go before he does light edits on his own computer.

“If a clerk read the wrong word or missed a comma, he would know and say, ‘Isn’t there a comma there or isn’t that a different word?’ ” recalled Michelle Friedland, a former clerk who is now a judge on the 9th Circuit.

Tatel’s writing is sparse and not prone to rhetorical flourishes. He detests passive voice and considers footnotes clutter. Anything worth saying should be fully explored in the text of the opinion, he says.

“He has tremendous ability to think in complete paragraphs and a great command of the overall picture of what a draft looks like,” Liu said.

President Bill Clinton picked Tatel in 1994 to succeed Ruth Bader Ginsburg. By then, he’d had a long career as a prominent civil liberties lawyer working to desegregate public schools throughout the country. Tatel honed his judicial style in more than 700 opinions and has collaborated with more than 100 clerks, whose photos are prominently displayed in the hallway of his chambers.

Some include college debate champions who Tatel first hired as his human readers before they went on to law school and returned to his chambers. Travis Crum, his first, gave Tatel a pipeline to what Crum jokingly calls “fast talking nerds who want to go to law school.”

“With all due respect to Yale Law School,” said Crum, now a law professor, “it was the best legal education I got.”

'He plays it straight'

Even as technology has evolved, what has not changed is Tatel’s analytical, energetic approach to the law and appreciation for the real-world impact of his decisions.

In 2012, a significant case landed with Tatel and his colleagues over a central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal approval before changing voting laws. Proponents said it was needed to protect minority voting rights, but the Supreme Court had already signaled skepticism.

“I’ve read the briefs, and I realize the Supreme Court has hinted where it’s headed,” Judge Stephen F. Williams, a nominee of President Ronald Reagan, wrote in an email to Tatel. “But I remain uncertain. What’s your view, David?”

What followed were memos, phone calls and meetings in Tatel’s chambers overlooking the National Gallery of Art in which the judges grappled over the law and the issues in a collaborative back-and-forth.

“You can’t predict how he’s going to decide based on who the plaintiff is or what the issue is. He plays it straight,” said Griffith, the third judge on the panel.

Tatel could not persuade Williams, his close friend who died last summer. But Griffith, a nominee of President George W. Bush, joined Tatel’s majority opinion upholding the law. The courts had no reason, Tatel wrote, to second guess Congress when it came to ensuring that “the right to vote — surely among the most important guarantees of political liberty in the Constitution — is not abridged on account of race.”

But, as Williams predicted, the Supreme Court reversed Tatel the next year in a 5-to-4 decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Republican-led state legislatures have since passed a flurry of new voting restrictions.

Geoffrey Stone, a professor and former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, said Tatel’s opinion “captured perfectly the reasons why the act was constitutional, why it was sensible and why we as a nation needed it.”

Tatel’s work has also impacted major environmental policies and shaped the future of the Internet. He was initially on the losing side when the full D.C. Circuit refused to rehear a lawsuit from Massachusetts and other states saying George W. Bush’s administration was not doing enough to fight global warming.

“If global warming is not a matter of exceptional importance, then those words have no meaning,” Tatel wrote, after delving into climate science.

He was vindicated in 2007 when the Supreme Court embraced his view and said in a 5-to-4 decision that the Clean Air Act empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases.

A few years later, Tatel ended up reviewing a trio of critical cases affecting the Internet. In 2016, he and Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote a rare joint opinion upholding strict rules banning Internet providers from blocking or slowing traffic to consumers.

“Given the tremendous impact third-party Internet content has had on our society, it would be hard to deny its dominance in the broadband experience,” the judges wrote. “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”

'What a good dog'

On the back roads of rural Virginia, where the Tatels relocated during the pandemic, the judge and his dog log many miles exploring together. Tatel firmly grasps Vixen’s harness as she gently steers him to the side of the road, standing guard between him and the large trucks that rumble by. And during virtual court hearings or while Tatel edits an opinion, Vixen collapses on an oversized pillow awaiting the judge’s next move.

Tatel was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 1957 as a teen attending Montgomery Blair High School. As he studied political science at the University of Michigan and later met Edie, his vision problems did not initially interfere with biking, skiing, reading or work.

After law school, he became an investigator for the Chicago mayor’s commission to study the 1968 riots, which cemented his commitment to civil rights and education. He would go on to lead the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the national committee in D.C. During the Carter administration, he revived the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

By his early 30s, Tatel had lost his eyesight.

He learned to use a mobility cane from a woman who taught tap dancing at the Chevy Chase Community Center. But for years, he resisted getting a guide dog in part because he thought it would require a lengthy training period away from court. Some in his family were also reluctant — partly fearing they would be displaced by a dog.

“All these years, we’ve walked together,” Tatel said of Edie. “My children, too. We never walk anywhere without holding on.”

But Tatel’s thinking changed as his movements became more prescribed. Edie walked with him from their apartment in Friendship Heights to the Metro. Law clerks took turns meeting him at Judiciary Square to walk with him to the gym to swim laps and then on to court.

Tatel first met Vixen in the summer of 2019, after his grandson shared a podcast describing a guide dog program with on-site, at-home training.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Tatel, who has run three marathons. “You have to give up all the techniques you’ve learned to get around and turn them over to a dog.”

Commands, hand signals, listening to traffic. Tatel engaged in two weeks of around-the-clock, painstaking work with a trainer and Vixen. The communication slowly began to feel more instinctive as they practiced walking city streets. But it would take six months to click and they are still learning from each other.

There were minor mishaps. When Vixen took a wrong turn during an early visit to the courthouse, the U.S. marshals had to steer the judge in the right direction.

During a recent trip to the courthouse, Tatel stood with Vixen on the Metro platform in Friendship Heights and waited. The double doors of the rail car slid open and Vixen guided the judge inside.

“What a good dog,” Tatel said, patting her head as she sat at his feet for the ride.

In his letter to Biden in February, Tatel characterized his tenure on the bench as “the highest honor of my professional life. But he said after 27 years, it was time to “make room for a new generation.”

After their Metro ride to Judiciary Square, Vixen took Tatel past a homeless encampment and then slowed down to signal caution as she expertly navigated between two cylindrical jersey barriers to arrive at the courthouse doors.

Even after more than a year away, Vixen needed no prompting from the judge.

She took him into the elevator and then trotted through the warren of private hallways until they reached Tatel’s light-filled chambers with a view of the Mall.

The judge exuberantly greeted his legal assistant, Amanda Grace, and with his hand on Vixen’s head, said: “Guess who knew the way?”