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Blind Federal Judge an Inspiration

By LARRY NEUMEISTER, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Judge Richard Conway Casey recalls the time he accidentally bumped into a courtroom wall at the beginning of a mob trial. Lawyers and spectators shifted uncomfortably - for just a moment.

``You're fired!'' Casey, 68, told his law clerk, who had accompanied him. ``Bring back my guide dog!''

The courtroom burst into laughter.

Unable to see for the past 14 years, Casey is the first blind person to be named a federal trial judge.

``You get mad. You get angry. You get depressed,'' he says. ``But then you choose to either sit there and wait to die or you get up and you move on. Once you make that decision, then you can find humor.''

Appointed in 1997, Casey handles a steady stream of 300 to 400 cases, which cross his desk on audiotapes created by a computer that converts printed words.

On rare occasions, he may swap a case with a colleague because it hinges on visual observation. Otherwise, his work ranges from drug cases to organized crime to contract disputes.

Jeff Thom, president of the American Blind Lawyers Association, said Casey is an inspiration for the estimated 500 blind lawyers nationwide. ``It gives us hope for the future of all blind lawyers,'' he said.

Born in Ithaca, N.Y., Casey played football at the College of the Holy Cross. After graduating from Georgetown University's law school, he became a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

By 1964, he joined a private law firm and soon was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that nibbled at his sight, beginning with his peripheral vision.

A die-hard New York Giants fan, Casey attended every home game. His loyalty was rewarded with a Super Bowl victory in January 1987; a month later he was blind.

He realized he had lived in denial, never seeking out a blind person for advice, never practicing with a guide dog, costing him ``a hundred bruised shins and stubbed toes.''

Dispirited, he met Celeste Lopes, a blind lawyer who showed him computers that convert written words into audio. She also demanded he join Ski for Light, a group that pairs instructors with blind skiers.

``You've lost your mind,'' Casey replied. ``I didn't ski when I had eyesight.''

Lopes said Casey was ``probably not comfortable with his own blindness'' when he went on a 1989 Montana ski trip. On his first day, Casey fell 50 times before 10 a.m.

He decided to quit, disappointed and tired, but other Ski for Light members persuaded him to stay.

``By the end of the first week, it was more crawling than skiing,'' Casey said. But Casey finally completed the three-kilometer course.

``As soon as I could get close to him, I hugged him,'' said Suzanne Brown, a group member from Atlanta. ``I couldn't help but cry. I knew he had given it all he had.''

Casey recalled: ``It was the first sense that I could lick being blind, that if I could do this, nothing was going to stop me.''

Nominated for a federal judgeship by President Clinton (news - web sites) in July 1997, the confirmation process drew some questions, including: How could Casey measure credibility without looking a witness in the eye?

Casey responded by asking whether sighted judges might be distracted by a pretty face, hair or clothing.

``If so, should they close their eyes?'' Casey asked, saying the true measure of credibility is determining whether details string together in a coherent, logical way.

He was appointed, joining U.S. Court of Appeals Justice David Tatel as the second blind person appointed to a federal judgeship.

Casey continues to attend Giants games. He sits in the arena listening to the radio play-by-play with the noise and excitement of the crowd all around him.

In quieter moments, he counsels the newly blind, like a 17-year-old car accident victim. Casey coaxed her onto skis.

``You need to get over one hurdle,'' he said. ``Then I think there's an obligation to turn around and help the ones behind you over the fence.''


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Date last modified October 28, 2001