Historic Admission of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Attorneys to The U.S. Supreme Court Bar

By Reema Radwan, Esq.

On Tuesday, April 19, 2016, a select group of twelve deaf and hard of hearing attorneys were sworn into the United States Supreme Court bar by Chief Justice John Roberts.  In a historic and thoughtful gesture receiving much press coverage, Chief Justice Roberts used American Sign Language from the bench by signing “your motion is granted, welcome” to indicate that the attorneys were admitted, which he learned specifically for this occasion.  This event marked the first-ever group ceremony for deaf and hard of hearing attorneys at the U.S. Supreme Court, symbolizing the strides that attorneys with disabilities have made.

All twelve attorneys are members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association (DHHBA), which was created in 2013.  It is estimated that about 250 deaf or hard of hearing attorneys are practicing law in the United States today.  In organizing this event, DHHBA sought to highlight the achievements of deaf and hard of hearing attorneys and help break down stereotypes by demonstrating clearly that deaf and hard of hearing individuals can achieve anything they set their minds to, with deaf attorneys holding positions ranging from litigators to prosecutors to judges. The twelve attorneys and their sponsor were as follows:

  • Zainab Alkebsi, National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Policy Counsel
  • Rachel Arfa, Staff Attorney, Civil Rights Team at Equip for Equality
  • Charla Beall, Kansas solo practitioner
  • Teresa Curtin, Attorney at Weitz & Luxenberg
  • Laura Gold, Director of Access & Disability Rights at Services for Independent Living, Inc.
  • Leonard Hall, Kansas solo practitioner
  • Julie Kegley, Staff Attorney/Program Director at the Georgia Advocacy Office
  • Faye Kuo, General Counsel for Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc.
  • Anat Maytal, DHHBA President and Litigation Associate at Baker Hostetler LLP
  • Debra Patkin, NAD Staff Attorney
  • Reema Radwan, Attorney-Advisor, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • Howard Rosenblum, NAD Chief Executive Officer
  • John Stanton, Appellate Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice (Sponsor)

Accommodations to assist the deaf and hard of hearing attorneys during the swearing-in ceremony and oral arguments at the Supreme Court included the use of two sign language interpreters and a special court reporter who provided real-time captioning so that the attorneys could read captions of what was being said on mobile devices or tablets through a password-protected wi-fi signal provided exclusively for the occasion. Though such technology is usually forbidden inside the courtroom, the Court granted this rare exception.  Some of the attorneys relied solely on sign language interpretation, some relied solely on real-time captioning services, and some relied on both.  Such accommodations were extremely helpful to ensure that all of the attorneys were able to follow oral arguments with everyone else in the courtroom.

Immediately following the swearing-in ceremony at the Supreme Court, the DHHBA attorneys headed over to the White House where they were invited to attend a meeting and roundtable discussion with Paulette Aniskoff and Maria Town from the White House Office of Public Engagement, and with White House Counsel Neil Eggleston.  The White House congratulated the newly admitted attorneys for becoming members of the United States Supreme Court bar and for serving as strong role models for their communities.  They also discussed ways to promote diversity and accessibility in employment for both the deaf and hard of hearing community and the disability community at large.  The DHHBA attorneys were also asked about the barriers they face in the legal profession and shared their insights into these experiences.

Reema Radwan, Esq. is a board member of the DHHBA, and currently practices in Washington DC as an Attorney-Advisor at Regulations and Rulings in the Office of Trade at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.