Braille Monitor               December 2023

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Shattering Injustice and Raising Expectations: Dedication to Equality by a Blind Attorney

by Karla Gilbride

Karla GilbrideFrom the Editor: At the time of this presentation, Karla Gilbride was being considered for a position on the United States Court of Appeals. She now holds that position. Here is what President Riccobono said prior to her introduction at the 2023 National Convention:

Our next speaker is another outstanding champion of equal rights, and she's not afraid of taking on the biggest of the corporations or government bad actors to address injustice. She also happens to be a blind woman, simply striving to live the life she wants. She graduated with honors from Georgetown Law in 2007 and has, in a very short time, made a difference. She's a member of the bar in New York, California, and the District of Columbia, as well as several federal district courts, the United States Supreme Court, and several courts of appeal. Most recently, she was the codirector for the Access to Justice Project at Public Justice, where she worked for nearly a decade. This will resonate with Federation members—her work is described as "focusing on dismantling structural barriers that make it more difficult for people harmed by corporations or government abuse to use the civil courts to get redress." In May 2022 she won a significant victory in a fight against forced arbitration in a case that she argued before the United States Supreme Court. I am not aware of another blind attorney who has argued and won a case in front of the Supreme Court, so she has done her work in a way that has set precedent in a very motivating way.

She's worked closely on a number of Federation matters, but most recently she led the arguments in the Court of Appeals on behalf of Joe Orozco.

I could talk for a long time about the many achievements that she's made in what is still quite a young career. I want you to know, however, that she has been nominated by the President of the United States to serve as the general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is a nomination that the Federation has enthusiastically supported. I just went over to her and asked if she was confirmed yet. She said not yet. We'll see at the end of her speech if you all feel she should be confirmed by the Senate.

I should also share with you that she is described as an avid baseball fan and a fantasy baseball nerd. She enjoys hiking, cycling, and goalball. Here is a true champion for equal rights and equal responsibility who is driven by her lived experience. Here is Karla Gilbride!

Karla Gilbride: Thank you, President Riccobono, for inviting me here to speak with you all today.
As a young child I was convinced that I wanted to be a lawyer. Now, mind you, I didn't have a very good idea of what it was that lawyers did, but I knew that I loved words and I loved using words to get my way. My dad used to make a joke about this. He would say, "She's going to be a great lawyer someday, because the judge will be so tired of hearing her argue that they'll let her win just to shut her up."

But even though my aspirations to be a lawyer went all the way back to childhood, I couldn't have imagined as a law student, or even as recently as three years ago, that I would have the opportunity to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. Making an argument there is very rare. Most lawyers never get the chance to do it. And I'm not aware of a totally blind lawyer who has ever argued there before I did last year.

In preparing to speak to you about that experience, I had occasion to reflect on what brought me to that juncture and what traits and tools made it possible for me to seize that opportunity when it came my way. I decided it boiled down to three things: I have a stubborn streak, I have strong blindness skills, and I have a passion to fight against injustice.

So, going back to the stubborn streak. It also dates back to early childhood. When I was young it was nothing more complex than that rebellious instinct a lot of little kids have, the desire to do the opposite of whatever the adults around them tell them to do. As a general matter, I wouldn't recommend it, because usually the adults in our lives are telling us things that are good for us. I've been totally blind since I was two years old. Many of us in this room may have had similar experiences—that sometimes the adults around you are telling you things that are not good for your development. They might say things such as, "You can skip that assignment, it would probably be too hard for you anyway," or, "It would be dangerous for you to do that phys ed activity; why don't you sit on the sidelines?" When the adults in my life said those things to me, my stubborn streak flared up, and I wanted to find a way to do the things they said I shouldn't do. As the child me would have put it, "Oh, yeah? I'll show you!"

Fortunately for me, I had parents who were fierce advocates. If they ever witnessed or heard from me about these sorts of incidents, they made clear to that gym teacher or that extracurricular activity leader that low expectations were not acceptable. I would be included in whatever the other kids were doing. I was fortunate that the administration in my public school also provided me with the supports and services that I needed.

Another thing I'm very grateful to my parents for is that they exposed me to a lot of positive, successful adult blind role models, including members of the National Federation of the Blind. Those blind adults impressed upon me the importance of gaining a strong foundation in blindness skills such as Braille and technology. I had the good sense to listen to what those adults told me. I became a proficient Braille user, and I learned to use the computer and the internet early in my educational career. With those skills in hand, I went off to college, after receiving a scholarship from the NFB in 1998.

When I came to the National Convention to receive that scholarship, I had the opportunity to observe a mock trial and watch blind lawyers like Scott LaBarre in action. That reinforced for me that this club of blind lawyers was one I definitely wanted to belong to.

Throughout college and law school, as I gained more experience, I was exposed to many people from different backgrounds and different life experiences than my own, including people with different disabilities. Through getting to know those people and learning more about their stories, I gained a more sophisticated understanding of the different identities that we all carry and the different forms of discrimination that we all face. I also came to appreciate that growing up as a white person in an affluent town on Long Island in a well-funded school district had afforded me a lot of advantages that many of my peers hadn't had. I learned that the history of injustice and access to opportunity in this country is far more complicated and far more painful than just my gym teacher telling me to sit on the sidelines.

Even as my understanding of discrimination deepened and became more expansive, I never forgot what it felt like viscerally to be held apart, to be treated as less than others. As I became a practicing lawyer, I tapped into those personal experiences and the feelings that they evoked in me. They still evoke those feelings in me when I experience discrimination to this day, for example, when I'm denied service from a rideshare driver because of my guide dog, which happens all the time.

I tapped into those experiences and those feelings to better relate to my clients who had experienced different but equally unjust mistreatment, whether it was being sexually harassed by a coworker or being passed over for a promotion because they were Black. That ability to empathize and have solidarity with others who experience mistreatment has made me a better lawyer. It has fueled my passion to fight against injustice. I agree with what Dr. King said in his letter from a Birmingham jail, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I spent three years working as a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California, working on disability discrimination cases. Then I decided to move back east, where my family is from, to take a job at a law firm in DC that handles all sorts of employment and housing discrimination cases. Ever since 2011 I've been practicing law in DC, either in plaintiffs' firms or public interest organizations with a focus on workers' rights, both around discrimination and around people not being paid properly for their work. In 2021 that workers' rights practice led me to meet Robyn Morgan.

Robyn was working at a Taco Bell franchise in Iowa, and she realized that she and her coworkers were not being paid overtime when they worked more than forty hours in a week as the law required. She filed a lawsuit on behalf of herself and her coworkers. Initially she was successful, but on appeal, the decision was reversed. It had to do with some complex legal stuff that I won't get into, involving forced arbitration and such. She couldn't be in court at all. She needed to go to a private arbitrator.

The lawyers who had handled her case in the district court came to Public Justice, which is where I was working at the time. We have a lot of experience working on these issues. They said, "Because we lost at the Court of Appeals, the only step left for Robyn's case is to take it to the United States Supreme Court. We would like you to handle the case."

My boss at Public Justice said, "Well, Karla, you have a lot of experience working on these particular legal issues. If we decide to go forward in the Supreme Court, I think you should handle the case."

I sat there for a minute, and there was a little voice inside my head that said, "Whoa!"
Now, I know the law in this area, I thought we had a good chance of winning. But it's the Supreme Court! And as I said before, not a lot of people ever get a chance to argue there. They only take about eighty cases a year, and those eighty cases tend to be handled by a very few repeat-player Supreme Court advocates who appear there over and over again.

But my passion to fight against injustice prevailed over my doubts. I thought that what had happened to Robyn wasn't right, and there was something we could do about it. So I said, "Yes, let's take the case." We filed our petition. The Supreme Court didn't have to take it. But a couple months later, we found out that they had taken it, and we were off to the races.

That was in November of 2021. A few weeks later I found out that Taco Bell had hired one of those repeat-player Supreme Court advocates to argue the case on their side, someone who has been up there over and over again. For those who know the law, you might recognize his name. Paul Clement. At that time he had argued over one hundred cases before the United States Supreme Court.

That little voice inside my head, that voice that had said, "Whoa!" got a little bit louder. And it got some company. There were a lot of little voices suddenly asking a lot of questions. What if you're not ready for this ... what if you're not smart enough ... what if you can't think on your feet as well as someone who has argued up there a hundred times?

Then it took a really toxic turn. These other thoughts came to the forefront. What if you go up there on that big stage and it doesn't go well and people think, Well, after all, what do you expect? She's blind ...

Luckily, just as that spiral of self-doubt started to take hold, that old stubborn streak flared up again. And it had something to say to all of those nagging negative thoughts swirling around in my head. It said, Oh, yeah? I'll show you!

So I buckled down, and I got back to preparing the case. That preparation meant reading lots and lots of previous cases, which I did using JAWS. That preparation also involved listening to lots and lots of archival audio of past Supreme Court arguments. Luckily Paul Clement had a large body of work, so I had a lot I could listen to.

And the other thing that was helpful, the reason I wanted to listen to all of these arguments, was to try to memorize the voices of the different justices. Since each of them has their own legal philosophy and way of approaching cases, it was very instructive for me to know who was asking me a question so I could know how best to respond.

Another thing I did to prepare was to put together a list of important cases and quotes that I wanted to have literally at my fingertips at the lectern. I could refer to my list in Braille as I was making my argument or as I was responding to questions.

Having two or three pages of Braille notes is something I've made a common practice whenever I do a court argument, whether in a trial or appellate court. But at the Supreme Court I also wanted to have a way to take notes when Mr. Clement was arguing. Since we were the petitioner, we would go first. We had brought the case to the court, so we would begin. Then Mr. Clement would have his argument time, and I would get the last word in rebuttal. I wanted to have a reliable way of taking notes so that I could make that rebuttal. I thought about bringing a Braille display, but I worried that the technology could fail at a really inopportune moment. So I dug back into my old bag of tricks, blindness skills I hadn't worked on since high school, and I brushed up on my slate and stylus skills.

A couple of weeks before the argument was scheduled, I called the Supreme Court to let them know I was bringing a slate and stylus into the building. I figured they wouldn't know what it was, and I didn't want to have a problem with security. I also asked them what accommodation they could make for their clock, which has a couple of different lights that come on. You get a yellow light when you have a couple minutes left, and then a red light comes on when you're out of time. I asked them could they provide some sort of audible tone? Did they have a nonvisual component to their system for people who can't see those colored lights?

They said, "Huh! We haven't thought about that. This hasn't come up before, but we'll come up with something." And they did. They had a court employee sit at a table and physically ring a bell when the light came on for yellow and when the light came on for red.

The day of the argument came, and it really went by in a blur. It lasted about an hour, but it felt much shorter than that because of all the adrenaline that was coursing through my veins. It was actually surprisingly enjoyable to be engaging back and forth with the justices. Before I knew it, the bell rang, and it was time to sit down. I just sat there in disbelief, thinking, Did I just really do that?

Because of the COVID protocols that were in place at the time, early in 2022, there was no public admitted into the court. It was just the lawyers, the justices, and a very few court staff. One of the people there was the official court sketch artist, who draws pictures of the people arguing each case. Because photographers aren't allowed in the court, those sketches will accompany any media account or article that's ever published about the case later. I was so proud and so moved when, the day after my argument, the official sketch appeared. It showed me standing at the lectern speaking with my hands on my Braille notes, and there was a little explanatory caption arrow pointing to my fingers with a note reading, "Braille." So now, in the official archives of the Supreme Court, there will always be that documentation that in March of 2022, a blind person argued at the Supreme Court and they used Braille to do it.

As proud as I am of that, I was equally proud two months later in May. In a unanimous 9-0 opinion, the court ruled for Robyn Morgan. I was able to do my part to help her get the justice she deserves.

As proud as I am of all that, I will be even more proud when I get to hear the next blind lawyer argue a case at the United States Supreme Court. What I really hope is that after two and three and four and five blind lawyers walk that path, the Supreme Court will decide to invest in some technological solution, such as a tone or a tactile buzzer for their visible light system, because they realize there are so many of us blind people arguing that just having a person ring the bell each time is not a good solution.

But this isn't just a story about the Supreme Court. And I certainly didn't say yes to come speak today just to congratulate myself. I came here and I'm sharing this story with you because I know that many, if not all of you, will in the future experience a situation where you will have voices of self-doubt inside your head like the ones I described earlier. And sometimes those voices aren't just coming from inside our heads. Sometimes they're coming from out there in the world, telling us we shouldn't do this, we can't do that, no blind person has ever done this before so what makes you think you can be the first?

When those voices come into your lives, whether external or internal or both, I hope that by sharing my story with you today, I will have given more strength and more conviction and more force to your own voice when you answer back, "Oh, yeah? I'll show you!"

We can all do more than other people think we're capable of doing. We can all do more than we might believe we're capable of ourselves. And we can do even more when we support and lift up one another. That spirit of mutual support and solidarity is one of the things that I admire most about this organization, especially when it's directed to those who are newly blind or to the next generation coming up.

I am so grateful to everyone who has supported and encouraged me along my journey, including people who are here in the room today and others who are no longer with us. I am honored to do what I can to pay it forward in the years ahead. Thank you all so much.

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