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A retired federal judge reflects on going blind and losing faith in the Supreme Court

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After working as a civil rights lawyer, my guest David Tatel served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the nation's second highest Court of Appeals with only the Supreme Court above it. In his new memoir, he writes that he became tired of having his work reviewed by a Supreme Court that didn't seem to share the principles he'd dedicated his life to. This week's decision about presidential immunity is an example of why he's lost faith in the court. He's seen the court overturn cases he worked on as a lawyer and as a judge, including voting rights.

Last week, the Supreme Court overturned the Chevron decision, a decision that said, courts have to show deference to agency experts when those experts interpret the laws they enforce. This was a disturbing decision for Tatel because the D.C. Circuit on which he served rules on cases related to federal agencies, and many rulings now risk being overturned. Tatel was appointed to the D.C. Circuit to fill the vacancy when President Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. Tatel retired from the D.C. Circuit earlier this year.

For half of his life, Tatel has been blind as a result of the progressive eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. For years, he kept that hidden from colleagues and the public coming up with techniques and excuses to cover up. Finally, he decided he needed a white cane. He was in his 70s when he was persuaded to get a guide dog. He was surprised by how smart and helpful his dog Vixen proved to be, and by how much he loves her. David Tatel's new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." He says, only now, in his 80s, has he finally come to accept his blindness as an essential part of who he is. David Tatel, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. I should mention that Vixen, your guide dog, is with you under the table. Is she officially working right now?

DAVID TATEL: Yes. She has her harness on, and she has a bowl of water in front of her.

GROSS: So I guess we won't be hearing from her.

TATEL: No.

GROSS: She's supposed to be really quiet now, right?

TATEL: Unless you ask her a specific question.

GROSS: OK. She's not wearing headphones. She wouldn't hear me.

TATEL: No. Right.

GROSS: All right. So this week, the Supreme Court ruled that presidents are immune from prosecution for any acts that are official acts of office. And official acts of office really need to be defined. So how has this decision further eroded your trust in the Supreme Court?

TATEL: I say in the next to last chapter of the book, Terry, after discussing the voting rights cases, Shelby County and the others. I write that, quote, "I fear for the future of our democracy," close quote. I fear for it much more today. The court has created - the court doesn't call it absolute immunity. They qualify, but they have in effect, made presidents immune from criminal acts committed while they were president. There's nothing in the Constitution that supports that. In fact, the structure and history of the Constitution should have led the court to the opposite conclusion. And not only that, the court did this, as it does many of its major decisions, on a six to three ideological vote with all of the Republican appointees, including the three appointed by President Trump in the majority.

GROSS: What would it have meant for you if you hadn't retired this year from the DC Circuit and you were still serving as a judge?

TATEL: I was on the court for 30 years, I had no problem being reversed by the Supreme Court. Actually, I think I was probably affirmed more than I was reversed. But like all federal judges, I wrote opinions that were reversed by the court. And until recently, that was OK. Even if I didn't agree with the way the court came out, I could usually respect what it had done. If I was interpreting a statute and the court reversed me interpreting the statute differently and reasonably, that's fine. That's their job. They're the Supreme Court. I'm not. Same thing, say, with respect to a precedent.

If I thought a Supreme Court decision required one result and the Supreme Court thought it required a different result and it explained its reasoning, that's fine. Even though I might not have liked the result, at least I respected the process, that is, the judging that went into the decision. The problem with today's court is that it has, decision after decision, abandoned very fundamental principles of judicial restraint, like following precedent, respect for constitutional text and statutory text, respecting its own limited jurisdiction. I could go on and on, but these are principles that the court has adopted to keep it confined to the judicial process and from intruding on the other branches of government. Those principles guided my life as a judge, and they guided the Supreme Court until recently. And I - its abandonment of those has led it to write opinions that produce results not only that I disagree with, but that result from flawed judicial reasoning.

GROSS: This strikes me as a kind of dilemma for the future. Like, you believe in stare decisis, which means leave decisions as is, you know, follow previously made decisions. Is that a reasonable interpretation?

TATEL: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And so, you know, you exercise judicial restraint. You describe yourself as a judicial conservative, but a political progressive, a social progressive. So that's what you tried to do as a judge, follow previous precedents. But now the precedents are going to be things like presidents have immunity in official acts of office, and overturning Chevron, which we'll talk about in a minute, and gutting the Voting Rights Act. Like, if you were a judge after all those decisions, would you still believe in following precedent, if those were precedents you profoundly disagreed with?

TATEL: Well, yes, that was my dilemma. I - as a appeals court judge, I would be bound to follow the precedents of the Supreme Court, which I did faithfully for all my years on the court. That's an obligation that appeals court judges have. We have to follow the case law of the decisions of the Supreme Court. The decisions that they've reached in the past week with respect to administrative agencies are deeply unprincipled decisions that in my view, threaten the very existence of the ability of our government to protect the public health and safety. And I would have to apply those. I would have to decide cases without Chevron deference, and we'll get to that in a minute. And I find that deeply uncomfortable because to me, what it does is it excludes from the decision-making process, the judgment of the experts are so important to the effective operation of these - of our agencies. And I could not stay on the court, and I would have to follow those and I find them deeply troubling and didn't want to do that. And I felt for that reason, plus other reasons, that I felt it was as they say, time for me to go.

GROSS: So last week, the Supreme Court overturned a decision, and this might sound very bureaucratic or administrative, but it's actually, like you said, it's about the safety of our food and our drugs, our health. So they overturned what's called the Chevron deference. And it has to do with regulatory agencies, and all of the appeals that get appealed to a high enough court land before the D.C. Circuit, which is where you served, so this is very relevant to 30 years of your life. So tell us about what the Chevron deference is.

TATEL: It means that when my court reviews an action, say, of the EPA, if someone challenges it as unlawful, if it clearly violates the law, then we rule for the challenger and invalidate it, but if the language of the statute - in this case, the Clean Air Act - is vague or ambiguous, and that's true of most statutory language, then we have to accept the agency's interpretation of that provision, as long as it's reasonable. And the reason Chevron's important is that it's very effectively, over the years, balanced the role of the judge and the role of the agency experts, so that judges can exercise their authority to declare agency action unlawful if they need to, but it prohibits judges from interfering in the expertise of the agencies. Agencies are staffed with thousands of subject matter experts who interpret the law based on their expertise, and that's critical to the effective functioning of administrative agencies, so Chevron has ensured that agencies function as Congress intended, but also kept them within their legal limits.

GROSS: So what does it mean, now that Chevron was overturned by the Supreme Court?

TATEL: Well, it means two basic things. One is it means that agencies like the EPA will be far less effective.

GROSS: Because everybody's going to challenge them, and the court might rule against them.

TATEL: Yes, everybody's going to challenge them, and if the court disagrees with their interpretation of the law, without deferring to it at all, they'll invalidate the regulation, so - and the other dramatic change here, Terry, with respect to this issue and many of the others we'll probably talk about today is that by overruling Chevron, the court has enhanced its power, its own power, dramatically over the authority of both Congress and the executive branch.

GROSS: Right, and one of the basic premises of Chevron is that judges know a lot, but they're not experts in environmental protection, and they don't know the percentages of toxic chemicals that will lead to serious illness. You know, this is the kind of thing that experts know, and judges don't have that kind of expertise in the areas that agencies cover. So you made a lot of - you participated in a lot of decisions based on Chevron and applying to regulatory agencies. Will those decisions risk being overturned now?

TATEL: Well, Terry, that's a really good question, because in Chevron, the court, the majority, assured us - assured us in express terms - that this wouldn't affect any previously decided cases, but in a decision issued Monday of this week, it ruled, contrary to everything it said before, that an agency regulation - it used to be that an agency regulation could only be challenged within a certain number of years of when it became final. The court earlier this week said that's no longer true. It can be challenged by newly created parties forever, so nothing now is final, and it means that if a newly created entity, a new corporation that didn't exist at the time of the regulation, challenges a regulation, it will now be reviewed by the courts without Chevron deference, so basically, technically, everything that - every decision that was issued before last week is now in jeopardy.

GROSS: I imagine, theoretically, you can start a company just to challenge regulatory decisions.

TATEL: In fact, that's exactly what happened in the case earlier this week.

GROSS: Oh, really?

TATEL: That's exactly what happened. An entity was created for that very purpose, and the court accepted that and ruled it could challenge a regulation that my court had sustained - in fact, I wrote the opinion - 10 years ago, and the Supreme Court denied cert. We applied Chevron deference. Now, in that case, it will be adjudicated by the courts - this time, a different court - without Chevron deference - could come out the other way now.

GROSS: Just on an emotional level, what is it like for you to have a decision that you wrote overturned by the Supreme Court, when you profoundly disagree with it?

TATEL: If I disagree with the result, OK, but if I disagree with the process by which it reached that - if the Court ignores its precedent to overrule a decision, or, as it did in the voting rights case, ignores the Constitution - I find it deeply upsetting as a judge. As a judge, I've tried to live by these standards of judicial restraint. They mean a lot to me and to our country, and I find it deeply upsetting and worrisome for our country that this court is so cavalier about them.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Tatel. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Tatel. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." He was a civil rights lawyer before President Clinton appointed him to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court in 1994, where he remained until retiring earlier this year. I think one of the most heartbreaking Supreme Court decisions for you was the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. What was your role in trying to uphold it when it was challenged?

TATEL: The Voting Rights Act - which was passed originally by Congress in 1965 and sustained, I think, four times by the Supreme Court - was challenged, and the challenge ended up in my court, and I was randomly assigned to the panel. I wrote the opinion sustaining the constitutionality of the act, which is, most people believe, one of the most effective civil rights laws ever passed, and the court, in an opinion that was deeply problematic, reversed 5-4 on a strict party-line vote.

GROSS: What was your reaction when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act?

TATEL: I thought it was an easy case. The 15th Amendment expressly gives Congress responsibility for enforcing the prohibition against racial discrimination in voting. It gives that to Congress. And the Supreme Court had said so three or four times previous to that. So when I decided the case, I reviewed all of the evidence that Congress had collected to justify continuing the statute, extending the statute, and concluded that under the 15th Amendment, it's Congress' judgment, not mine. When it went to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court said the South had changed, even though Congress, which is responsible, under the 15th Amendment, for making that judgment, had concluded just the opposite. It was a breathtaking exercise of judicial activism.

GROSS: What are some of your concerns about the judicial system if Trump is elected to a second term, especially now that he has criminal immunity when performing official acts of office?

TATEL: Well, from the point of view of a judge, my worry is mainly with respect to the process, the authority to appoint judges. He's, in his first term, appointed a significant number of federal judges throughout the system and three on the Supreme Court, and given that record, I am not sanguine about the types of people he will appoint in the future. I do not - I fear for democracy for many reasons, Terry, and that's certainly one of them.

GROSS: I want you to talk a little bit about the role of the D.C. Circuit and why it's second only to the Supreme Court in terms of the amount of power it has.

TATEL: Yes. The reason why the D.C. Circuit is called the second-most powerful court is that unlike the other regional circuits around the country, the D.C. Circuit essentially presides over the federal government and all of its agencies, and those agencies have national jurisdiction. So the caseload of the D.C. Circuit comes from all over the country. We could, in one day, be hearing a case involving Yellowstone National Park and a labor dispute in Seattle, Wash., and an agriculture case from Mississippi. So it's a national court, just like the Supreme Court. It's also the court that gets all the big political cases.

GROSS: So it's the court that's going to get all the big cases about Trump now, with the new...

TATEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Supreme Court decision about immunity?

TATEL: Yes. It had - you know, it had the Watergate - all the Watergate cases. It had all the Clinton cases, and now it's getting all the Trump cases.

GROSS: So how come there's three judges on the panel and not just one judge ruling?

TATEL: The statute that creates the court district judges - that is, trial judges, the ones who try cases - they sit alone, but courts of appeals sit in panels of three, and the idea is that - and courts of appeals don't find facts. They apply the law to the facts a district court found, and the idea behind having three, or more than just one judge, is that having three minds work on a legal issue produces a better result than just one, and it's less likely to be political, because the three have to work out their disagreements hopefully.

GROSS: Did it work that way in reality?

TATEL: Yes, it did. It worked that way remarkably well for decades.

GROSS: Did it ever feel like a burden, to have so much power?

TATEL: Yes, but I thought the principles of judicial restraint were very reassuring because they were a way that I used to assure myself that the power I exercised was only the power that came from the statute, from the laws of Congress and the Constitution. It wasn't any power that came from my own political or policy views. I found them deeply reassuring, but it is an awesome power, yes.

GROSS: Who appointed the other two - well, I guess just over the series of judges over the 30 years that you were on the D.C.?

TATEL: Well, there were 11 judges - when I left, there were 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit. I think eight were appointed by Democratic presidents, the rest by Republican, but when I joined the court, most of the judges had been appointed by Republican presidents.

GROSS: And did you feel like that made a difference? Did you feel like, you know, politics or ideology often came between you?

TATEL: No, it didn't. I mean, sometimes - well, the system's not perfect, and setting aside your own political and policy views is hard. It's the hardest thing a judge has to do. Most of the time, on my court, I thought we did a good job. That doesn't mean it was perfect, and that doesn't mean there weren't decisions that I thought judges had allowed their political or policy views to influence the outcome, sure. We're only human.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Tatel. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENERGY REFLECT & PAUL MILLER'S "ASCEND (EXTENDED MIX)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with David Tatel. He was a civil rights lawyer before President Clinton appointed him to the D.C. Circuit Court in 1994, where he served until earlier this year, when he retired. He says he became tired of having his work reviewed by a Supreme Court that seemed to hold in such low regard the principles to which he'd dedicated his life. Tatel is blind, something he tried to cover up for years because he didn't want to be seen as disabled or incapable of doing his job. He has a progressive eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which was diagnosed when he was 12. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice."

Let's talk about recusals. A lot of people thought that Justices Alito and Thomas should have recused themselves from cases pertaining to President Trump, especially this case from this week. The decision was handed this week that presidents have immunity, criminal immunity, when performing official acts of office. When did you recuse yourself? What were your standards for self-recusal on the D.C. Circuit?

TATEL: I applied a Tatel five-minute rule to recusal, which is if I had to think about it for more than five minutes, I erred on the side of recusal. And the reason for that is that even though in a few cases where I did recuse myself, I had no doubt that I could decide the case objectively, I worried that the public might have doubts about it, and since one of the most important things about courts is their integrity and the public's perception that courts are acting objectively and not based on the individual interests of their judges - since that's so important, I always erred on the side of recusal. And in my book, I write about one of those cases, where I was on a panel that was considering whether or not to order the Treasury Department to comply more quickly with a law that required paper currency to be accessible to the blind. This is something I felt pretty strongly about myself, because...

GROSS: Then this would - so, like, paper money would be in separate sizes depending on whether it's...

TATEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...A single, a five, a 10, a 20...

TATEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Etc., so that you can...

TATEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Feel what's what and not have to ask people...

TATEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Who you're paying, hey, is this a 20, or is it a $100 bill (laughter)?

TATEL: Exactly, yeah, which I can't do in this country. I can in Mexico, but I can't here because they're all the same size. So I felt pretty strongly about it, but even so, I had no doubt that I could apply the statute to the case. I knew I could do that. I could set aside my own feelings about it, but I worried. I worried that - you know, the public's view about blindness is tricky. I think people have low expectations about what blind people can and should do, and even though I think that's not reasonable, I understand it, and the last thing I wanted was the integrity of my court's decision to be undermined by someone saying, oh, well, yeah, the court with a blind judge on it ordered the Treasury Department to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making our currency accessible, so I recused myself.

Now, I admit it's much easier for an appeals court judge to recuse himself or herself because another judge can take their place, which is what happened in my case. On the Supreme Court, it's very different because there's only nine justices. They hear all their cases together, and if a justice recuses himself or herself, then there's only eight, and that makes it more difficult for the court to decide cases. So Supreme Court justices have a much - it's much harder for them to recuse themselves, and I understand that, but I think it puts on Supreme Court justices a much heavier burden to make sure they don't get involved in situations where they have to recuse themselves. For us, we can always recuse ourselves and be replaced. They can't, so they have a much heavier burden than we do to be sure they avoid any situations that would require recusal.

GROSS: Let's talk about losing your vision. You started becoming aware that you were losing your sight when you were 12. Mother took you to the doctor, and he told you to eat a lot of carrots, which wasn't terribly helpful. I don't know if you like carrots a lot. Maybe you enjoyed eating them, but they didn't help your vision. It turned out you had a pretty rare progressive disease called retinitis pigmentosa, in which the person who has it gradually loses their sight. How old were you when you became legally blind?

TATEL: Well, I was diagnosed officially with RP when I was 15. And by the way, Terry, I still love carrots.

GROSS: Oh, you do? Oh, good.

TATEL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: I'm glad it didn't ruin them for you forever.

TATEL: No, I love carrots. There are other vegetables I don't like, but I do love carrots. But even before I was diagnosed, I couldn't see at night, which is a typical symptom of RP. But by 15, I was formally diagnosed, and between 15 and my middle 30s, my eyesight declined slowly but steadily. The night blindness got worse and the peripheral vision got narrower, and I could - over those period of times, I mean, I could still function and walk around, but it was very clear my eyesight was declining steadily until I was 35, at which point I finally couldn't read, and that's when I began to make the transition to sort of functioning without sight. That's the point I went and got a Braille tutor, and it's when I started learning to - starting to work with readers and starting to use, you know, assistance to help me with mobility, before I got the courage to actually bite the bullet and get a cane.

GROSS: What were your ways of covering up that you were losing your vision, before you outed yourself...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...As being blind?

TATEL: When I would go - this is when I was a teenager. When I would go to the movie theater with my friends, I was fine until they turned the lights off, and I couldn't get around, and instead of saying to my friends, hey, would one of you get the popcorn? I can't see - I would go get it myself, and I would count the seats to the aisle - you know, one, two, three, four, five, six, when I got to the aisle - and then I'd turn right and go up the hill, up the aisle, and count the rows going up, and then I'd buy the popcorn and then come back, counting backwards, to my seat, and I was able to function like any other kid without revealing that I really couldn't see. Snd I have - I had a whole book load of tricks that are in my book.

GROSS: Did you ever run into the typical, like, parking garage problem, where it's like, oh, I forgot to remember where my car is?

TATEL: Well...

GROSS: I mean, and...

TATEL: ...Not my car because...

GROSS: ...Even in a movie theater, I forgot to count the stairs, or I forgot what the number was - Iike, what row I'm in.

TATEL: Yes. The biggest problem for me in the darkness was restaurants. You know, you come from outside, where it's bright, and then you go inside to a dark restaurant. And getting lost in restaurants and covering that up was a serious problem for me. It caused a lot of anxiety, and I had lots of tricks to try to avoid getting lost in dark restaurants, which became, you know, more of a problem when I became a lawyer in a law firm, and people go out for fancy lunches to nice restaurants, and we all go into the restaurant, and I'd immediately be confronted with this challenge of, well, OK, how do I find my way around in this dark place?

GROSS: And how did you?

TATEL: And, well, I used many different - one way, one thing I would do is when we went into the restaurant, I would make sure that if - that I was behind a person, and I kept talking to that person, so that I could follow their voice. That worked most of the time, but did I get lost in restaurants? Yeah, I did.

GROSS: OK, we have to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Tatel. He's a former civil rights attorney who became a judge on the D.C. circuit and served on it from 1994 until retiring earlier this year. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Tatel. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." He was a civil rights lawyer before President Clinton appointed him to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court in 1994, where he remained until retiring earlier this year. You had to be vetted...

TATEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...To become a judge on the D.C. Circuit. Were you still covering up that you were blind at the time?

TATEL: I was not - covering it up isn't the right word by that point. By that time, I was using a white, a mobility cane. But I wasn't talking about it. I didn't - before I got my cane, I did everything I could to cover it up. I worried that my future career would be hurt if too many people knew I had a visual disability. But once I got the cane, I couldn't really cover it up, but even after I had the cane, Terry, I was uncomfortable talking about it.

I did not want to be viewed - when I would get a job, I didn't want to be viewed as a person who got the job because he was blind. I wanted to be viewed as a person who got the job on the merits. So when President Clinton nominated me to the D.C. Circuit, he didn't say a word about blindness in his press release, but the press treated it as the first blind judge. You know, I was thrilled to be on the D.C. Circuit. It was a dream of a lifetime for me, but I didn't want to be known as the blind judge at that time. That's certainly changed now, but then I was very reluctant to talk about it or make an issue of it.

GROSS: How did you manage to read thousands of legal briefs and remember their contents without being able to read them and circle things you wanted to remember...

TATEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Or whatever, you know, not being able to use the devices...

TATEL: Sure.

GROSS: ...And clues that sighted people are capable of doing?

TATEL: Yeah. Well, you know, Terry, the brain is an amazing device. It accommodates to the loss of certain features and characteristics. I had a perfectly normal memory when I was growing up. I mean, I was really good at memorizing batting averages and stuff like that. But, in my biology class, did I remember that? No, I didn't. I didn't - I didn't have an especially good memory. But when my eyesight began to decline and I was dependent on readers, and it was harder to take notes, it became quite clear after a while that I was able to recall things much easier. And I think that's just the way the brain works. And lots of people with disabilities will have seen that happen.

After a while, I could write a speech and deliver it from memory for half an hour or 45 minutes. Now that I have devices that don't require me to depend on my memory, my memory is back to where it was when I was a kid, and I'm still good at batting averages, but not much else. So, the brain is just enormously elastic.

GROSS: Digital technology has changed a lot since you lost your eyesight. What has been the most helpful development in digital tech for you, especially during your legal career, when you had to...

TATEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Read so many legal briefs?

TATEL: Technology has been magical. It is a lot easier to be blind now than it was 40 years ago. When the world went digital, you know, my court now, law firms, everybody, everything is digital. There's no more paper. And text to speech technology has developed dramatically so that I can now read virtually everything that comes across my desk. When I started at the D.C. Circuit, I had a reader and even a backup reader. Now I don't have one because I can do...

GROSS: When you say a reader, do you mean somebody reading to you?

TATEL: Yes. I had a full-time reader. And when I started at the court, I had a full-time reader, college graduate, who I hired every year, a new one every year, and they read everything that came across my desk - briefs, opinions, the morning newspapers, everything. Now, 30 years later, I can read all that myself. It's just been totally amazing.

GROSS: You resisted getting a guide dog for decades.

TATEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Why did you finally decide you were going to do it?

TATEL: Well, I didn't resist getting a guide dog. It just didn't seem right for me. It was too much of a - it seemed like you had to go to the facility to learn to use a dog and spend a month there, and I just wasn't going to do that. But as I got I had this earning to be more independent than I had with my cane. And so when I was in my late 70s - 77, a number of - I tell a whole story in the book in a chapter called "The Dog That Changed My Life." My wife and I decided that we should try getting a guide dog. I want to emphasize Terry, that I have this wonderful guide dog. It's wonderful in many, many ways, but she's a latecomer in my life, and the person who has really made the difference for me and my career has been my wife Edie. I say in the prologue that my life, much less this book, wouldn't be possible without her. And Edie and my family have been the ones who have made the difference in my life, but Vixen, coming late in my life, has been a wonderful improvement for both Edie and me because she's given us a huge amount of independence. In the city, I'm no longer dependent on people to get from here to there. Vixen and I just go back and forth to the office by ourselves. She rides the Metro. She loves escalators, and she can...

GROSS: How does she know which is the right train?

TATEL: Oh, well, because when you go down to the platform, the train I get on - she doesn't. I have to do that. I have to tell which train it is, but on the D.C. Metro, it's easy. But after a few rides, she knows when to get off. How does she know that? I do not know. But when we get to our stop, she stands up. I don't understand that. This dog is so smart, and so intuitive. I don't know how she knows that. But then in the country, Edie and I live in the country now most of the time, and we love to walk. We like to walk very long walks, and we like to walk together, but now, when I want to go for a walk, Vixen and I go for a walk.

We - five- or six-mile walk on the dirt roads of Castleton of Rappahannock County, and Vixen is in charge of of safety. And I'm free to enjoy the sounds of the birds and the river and think about my book. It's been - and Edie's got more independence. Vixen has given both of us independence. She now - well, I'm here at the studio today with Vixen. She's back in Castleton.

GROSS: She's at your feet under the table.

TATEL: Vixen is. Not my wife.

GROSS: Yeah. No, no.

TATEL: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: Heck no.

TATEL: Yeah. Vixen's at my feet, ready to serve.

GROSS: I should mention for curious listeners that Vixen is a German shepherd.

TATEL: Vixen is a 7-year-old German Shepherd.

GROSS: Yeah.

TATEL: Right. She's just happily lying there, and when I get up, she'll get up, and we'll leave. So it's been a wonderful experience. This dog - I've had her for four years, almost five years now. And she travels everywhere I go. She goes on airplanes. And as I said, she's really given both Edie and me a remarkable amount of independence. And when you're blind, there's a lot of things you can't do, and so you yearn - at least, I yearn to do more - as much as I can by myself.

And Vixen has really facilitated that. She, as Edie said, she's even allowed me to to go on a walk alone, which is pretty amazing. And actually, was important - played an important role in writing this book.

GROSS: It used to be your wife who held your hand on walks, who accompanied to the train.

TATEL: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: So now she doesn't have to do that. I'm wondering how it's affected your marriage to have Vixen.

TATEL: (Laughter) We talked a lot about that while writing this book. I - our marriage - I think it's helped. I think - too bad Edie's not here. You could ask her that question. I think with me being less dependent, it's given her and me - I think she loves the independence I have as much as I do, but we still love to go on walks together. We often go for a long walk together, and even with Vixen along, we hold hands.

GROSS: You lost your sight when you were - I think you said you were 35 by the time it was completely gone?

TATEL: Yes.

GROSS: And so your wife - who's about the same age as you are, yes?

TATEL: Right. Yes, same age.

GROSS: So you haven't seen her face since you were 35 and you're now in your early 80s. So that's a long time ago. So when you try to visualize your wife, do you always see her as somebody in her 30s?

TATEL: That is such a good question. I write - I'm going to answer your question, but I write in the prologue that you know, notwithstanding all the success I've had and this wonderful dog, I'd really rather not be blind, and I give three reasons for it. And one of them is that I'd really like to see Edie's beautiful white hair. And, you know, I know she now has white hair that she didn't have when we were married at the age of 23. And I think do I think my mental view of my wife is the 23-year-old with white hair? No. I think - I know what my wife looks like. And I think - remember I said how amazing the brain is? For whatever reason, I think I have a good mental image of what my wife looks like. And now, instead of being a beautiful 23-year-old, she's a beautiful 81-year-old.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Tatel. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Tatel. His new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." He was a civil rights lawyer before President Clinton appointed him to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court in 1994, where he remained until retiring earlier this year.

One of the responsibilities of having a dog, and this is a responsibility that can be a real pain is no matter what the weather is, blizzard, rainstorm, the dog's going to need to poop and you have to take a walk outside with it, right? Then you have to, like...

TATEL: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: ...Scoop it up and find a way to dispose it and so on. How does it work with a guide dog? They're supposed to be helping you, you got to help them with that.

TATEL: Yes. And that's part of the magic of this relationship.

GROSS: It is (laughter)?

TATEL: Yes, because...

GROSS: I asking you about pooping, and it's part of the magic?

TATEL: Yes. Yes. And here's why. She - the relationship works only when the dog bonds completely with the human. And so the human has to take care of the dog. Nobody else can feed Vixen. Nobody else can brush her.

GROSS: No one else is allowed to, is that what you're saying?

TATEL: No, no, I do it all. And...

GROSS: So that she relies on you that you are her support?

TATEL: Yes. And it's my way - I love it because it's my way of giving back to her for everything she does for me. And even going out in the rain at night, taking her out at night. I just feel as if it's my way of thanking Vixen for everything she does for me. And Terry, you don't have to - picking up the poop is easy, and you don't have to find a place for it because she takes me there.

GROSS: Oh, you mean she knows where to go?

TATEL: Yes. She take no. Well, she'll take me after I - this is awfully personal for Vixen, but I'll talk about it anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

TATEL: After I've picked it up, she takes me to the trash can.

GROSS: Oh, really?

TATEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's so interesting. Another interesting thing about your dog, Vixen, is that she will disobey you when you've asked her to do something that poses a danger to you. Like if you say...

TATEL: Correct.

GROSS: ...Like, cross the street or something, and she knows that it's not safe, she will block you from...

TATEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Moving in that direction. And I kept thinking, like, how do you train a dog to disobey you?

TATEL: I don't know how they do it. I think the people that - the programs who breed and train guide dogs are amazing people. And they're extraordinarily skilled. And obviously, they're working with animals that are very intuitive and smart. And however they do it, Vixen will not take any chances. When we're standing on the metro platform, waiting for the train, she stands in front of me. She'll move just between me and the platform. That's what she's trained to do. And I'm told that if I say it's time to cross the street, and it's not safe, she just won't go.

GROSS: Well, David Tatel, thank you so much for coming on our show, and congratulations on your new memoir.

TATEL: Thank you. I've enjoyed our conversation.

GROSS: Me too. I don't suppose I could get Vixen to bark and say hello.

TATEL: I don't think she'll bark.

GROSS: Too well behaved.

TATEL: No, she just - let me see. Hey, Vixen, come here. Yep. Come here. Come and say hello. Yeah. She's not going to bark. If we could get a squirrel to go by, she might bark.

GROSS: All right.

TATEL: But here she is. She just got up. Here, Vixen. Do you want to say hello to Terry? She's a cat person. What do you think?

GROSS: (Laughter).

TATEL: She's sitting here. I'm scratching her ear. And she's being a very good dog. Yeah.

GROSS: All right. I will let you both go.

TATEL: Terry, it's been a real treat. Thank you.

GROSS: Oh, for me as well. You take care.

David Tatel's new book is called "Vision: A Memoir Of Blindness And Justice." After serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for 30 years, he retired earlier this year.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GIVE LOVE A BAD NAME")

BON JOVI: (Singing) Shot through the heart, and you're to blame. Darling, you give love a bad name.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, on our July Fourth edition, we'll feature my recent interview with Jon Bon Jovi. He sung his powerful anthems in big stadiums around the world. A couple of years ago, he stopped performing because of vocal problems. We'll talk about the surgery that's enabled him to record again, and we'll look back on his career. A Bon Jovi documentary series is streaming on Hulu. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GIVE LOVE A BAD NAME")

BON JOVI: (Singing) An angel's smile is what you sell. You promised me heaven then put me through hell.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi, and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GIVE LOVE A BAD NAME")

BON JOVI: (Singing) I play my part and you play your game. You give love a bad name. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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