Author Q&A: Curiosity, passion, and navigating the midlife career transition at 52

But it’s no cliché to Judge David S. Tatel, now 82 and recently retired. “I can’t see, but I can listen closely,” he writes in his new memoir, “Vision: A Memoir of Blindness and Justice.”

“I’ve spent my professional career in the pursuit of justice, and I could have written a memoir entirely about that pursuit,” Tatel writes. “But unlike most lawyers and judges, I’ve been blind for over half my life due to a rare, inherited eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). I had no models of blind people who were successful. There were no practicing lawyers that I knew of, or certainly no judges who were blind.”

Throughout his 30 years on the nation’s second-highest court, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, he “could neither read a word of the thousands of legal briefs submitted to my court nor see the faces of the hundreds of lawyers who argued before me,” he recalls.

Tatel succeeded Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the D.C. appeals court when she was appointed to the US Supreme Court. If the chips had fallen differently after Bush v. Gore, many Washington observers say Tatel would likely be on the Supreme Court today.

Here’s what Tatel had to say about passion, work, and retirement, edited for length and clarity:

Kerry Hannon: Judge Tatel, I’ll start with the most basic question: Why did you write this book?

I had no intention of writing a book when I retired. It just wasn’t something I wanted to do. I definitely didn’t want to write a book about blindness because I spent most of my life trying to ignore it. Several dear friends and family really pushed me. They thought that I had a story that was worth telling, that it could be inspirational to people with disabilities and people without. It was hard, and it took almost three years, but I’m very glad I did it.

“Vixen has learned to live with me and help me live with her. It’s a pretty extraordinary relationship.” (Photo by Edie Tatel)

What role does curiosity play in your path from University of Michigan student to federal judge?

I inherited from my father a keen sense of curiosity about everything. I’ve always been interested in many different things. Curiosity has been a major force in my life, including by the way, writing this book. It’s essentially characterized by curiosity about yourself.

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Tell me about the role that passion has played in your career?

It came from the 1960s for me. My wife, Edie, and I are children of the 1960s — a time of passion about civil rights, the environment, and anti-war. It was a passionate time in US history. Tragic times too. I became committed to civil rights and trying to make the legal profession work. Those all trace back to the 1960s.

You write, “Don’t deny your challenges, embrace them.” Can you elaborate on that?

I spent a huge amount of energy for the first few decades of losing my sight trying to cover up the loss. But as I look back on my life, I know there were legitimate fears. I know there was embarrassment about being different than your friends. If I had to give my younger self advice right now, I would say ‘don’t do that.’ You don’t have to celebrate your blindness, which I, of course, would never do, but acknowledging it would have given me an opportunity to serve as an inspiration to other people.

One piece of advice you give to lawyers starting out, but I think applies to all of us, is to attach yourself to an organization with a mission that you care about. Can you expand on that?

I needed an organization beyond my law firm that was committed to a cause. And fortunately, I found the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law with these devoted lawyers. It was the right place and the right time. And that organization, its commitment to civil rights and fairness and justice shaped my entire career. It’s where I found my role models. And so there was a structure to my career beyond my workplace, beyond going to work every day and working hard. I would not be a judge on the DC circuit had it not been for [that organization].

For you, the key to judicial collegiality is to “respect each other, to listen to each other, and to sometimes change your mind.” That’s a great way to think about a lot of our working relationships with people. How was that key to your work as a judge?

"I became committed to civil rights and trying to make the legal profession work. Those all trace back to the 1960s." (Photo by Edie Tatel)
“I became committed to civil rights and trying to make the legal profession work. Those all trace back to the 1960s.” (Photo by Edie Tatel)

We don’t decide a case by ourselves. In my court, there are three judges on a panel. The role inherently requires discussions and collaboration with other judges. It’s not something you do alone. And that process is actually really important to the judicial process because the discussion between the judges, if it works the way it’s supposed to, is deeply informative because you learn from each other and you learn new ideas or ways of thinking of things from your colleagues. And hopefully, you learn to listen. And, as I said, to sometimes change your mind.

You were, at age 52, named to be a federal judge. I mean, that’s a big midlife relaunch. Thoughts?

It was a totally new career. Yes, it was in the law, but it was a completely different life. I was a partner in a law firm with an active practice, traveling, going to meetings, handling lots of cases at the same time. Now, suddenly, I’m in a judge’s chambers alone. Nobody calls. There’s almost no travel. And you spend your day reading and writing. I loved it, but it was a dramatic change. I’d say it took at least five years for me to get comfortable in the job and maybe another five years to get really good at it.

You are, and I use that in quotes, “retired” now. What does the word retirement mean to you?

To be honest, I don’t feel at all retired. This book has been another job, my next career. What’s next? Well, I’ve gone back to my firm as a senior counsel, and I’m not going to practice law, but I hope to be helpful in the firm’s pro bono program.

Why step away from the court now?

There were several reasons why I retired from the court. Judges have lifetime appointments. We can stay as long as we want. But I’ve always thought that too many judges stay too long. That at a certain point, it’s important for a judge to retire. It’s just my own view. I think institutions are stronger when there’s turnover. Now judges can take senior status. I did that for a while, but still, particularly for judging, you need to be fresh.

But there was another push, correct?

The other reason is, you know from reading the book, that I’ve become increasingly concerned about the Supreme Court and its decisions. And appeals court judges like me, are bound by Supreme Court decisions. I didn’t mind following Supreme Court decisions in the past that even when I thought they were wrong, at least I thought they were principled. I didn’t want to spend my time trying to figure out how to apply some of this court’s made-up doctrines, particularly since I think they have severe consequences for voting and the environment. It’s not the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life. So rather than complain, I decided I would retire.

You mention term limits for the Supreme Court justices. That has gotten some media attention, right?

I think it would be a great idea, but it’s academic. It isn’t going to happen. For political and constitutional reasons, it’s just not going to happen. So I only spent two sentences on it.

What are the most important threads in your career?

There’s clearly a thread running through my whole career, and it is access to the legal system. The United States is a rule-of-law country, and it has a judicial system, which is critical to the rule of law. But a legal system can’t function if not everybody has access to it. And in our country, sadly to say, poor people and even middle class people don’t have any serious, realistic access to the legal system because of its costs. Even with publicly funded legal services, 90% of poor people have no access to the legal system. So a lot of what I did in my life was to focus on that, making lawyers available so that people can have access to the legal system.

Another thread is the right to vote. Can you share your thoughts there?

..My concern about the Supreme Court’s voting rights decisions, which have allowed states and local election boards to limit the right to vote, is about the most undemocratic thing you can think of. And so, since we can’t change the structure of our government or change the Supreme Court, we now have to resort to the basics. Whatever you do, vote. Get your friends to vote. Get everybody to vote. If states are making it more difficult to vote, get around those difficulties. If they’re insisting on an ID, go get an ID. Stop complaining about it, and vote.

My final question, and perhaps my favorite question, is: What lessons have you learned from Vixen, your guide dog, who came into your life four years ago?

I think everybody should have a dog. There’s something magical. As a guide dog, the dog-human relationship doesn’t work unless the dog is tightly bound to the person. It’s the first time I’ve ever been fully responsible for taking care of another creature. And I love to take care of her because she takes such good care of me.

I have a wonderful 60-year marriage to Edie, and she is a huge part of all of this and who’s really responsible for this book. But Vixen has added something that no other human can. Vixen has allowed me to be alone. It’s important for everybody to have an opportunity to be alone and to think. I don’t think humans have come close to understanding how conscious and aware dogs really are, It’s just fascinating to see how Vixen has learned to live with me and help me live with her. It’s a pretty extraordinary relationship.

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