Why Disability Diversity Is Important in the Judiciary

10 Min Read By: Ann Motl

Earlier this year, President Biden nominated his first judicial nominee who has a disclosed disability, Jamal N. Whitehead. Whitehead is a litigator in Seattle. He also uses a prosthetic leg. Although 26 percent of the United States’ population has some type of disability,[1] the number of legal professionals with disabilities, including judges, is much lower. There are many reasons for low numbers of disabled judges, including implicit and explicit bias, pipeline issues, stigma associated with having and disclosing a disability, and an overall lack of data. Indeed, people with disabilities are sometimes termed “the forgotten minority,” despite being the nation’s largest minority.[2] Fortunately, more organizations are beginning to recognize disability as an integral part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement. This article discusses why disability diversity is important in the judiciary and how disability diversity is currently tracked (if at all), and it provides the first-ever attempt at publishing a list of judges with disabilities.

A judiciary that reflects its population is an important goal,[3] and disability is part of our nation’s populace. Among the sixty-one million adults who have some type of disability in the United States, disabilities are wide-ranging.[4] Although the typical symbol for disability is a person in a wheelchair, disabilities can be visible or invisible. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Unfortunately, in our inaccessible society, disability can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s health, social status, employment, and living situation.

Judges have an important role in deciding cases based on disability-related laws. They interpret the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA), the Affordable Care Act, disability benefits laws such as Social Security Disability Insurance, and state laws related to disability. The millions of adults living with disabilities are therefore dependent on a judiciary in which only a small percentage of judges may have a lived understanding of disability.

Although the number of judges with disabilities is small, the exact number is not entirely clear. For federal judges, the Federal Judicial Center keeps data on race, ethnicity, and gender but not disability.[5] There does not appear to be any data on the number of judges with disabilities in state court, either. As the Center for American Progress notes, the “virtual absence of information on disabled [] judges is problematic and deserves more attention.”[6] Indeed, it is difficult to measure progress if it is not tracked.

As an important concession, even if the judiciary tracked the number of judges with disabilities, the number likely would not be accurate. Many individuals do not disclose their disabilities. Stigma continues to exist surrounding disability, and judges who face reelection or reappointment may be wary to disclose.

Still, there are judges that have publicly disclosed disabilities. The following list represents the first known attempt to create a comprehensive list of current and former judges with disabilities in the United States. Some of these judges have retired or have passed away. The author would be grateful to receive any additional names to add to this list and apologizes for any omissions.

The list provides certain takeaways. Notably, most of the types of disabilities on this list are visible. It is likely many judges with invisible disabilities, including mental health issues, have not publicly disclosed them. Indeed, research notes that many judges experience depressive symptoms due to the unique nature of their positions,[7] but the number of judges who have disclosed mental health issues is nearly zero. The main takeaway is simply how few disabled judges there are. As an example, there are only a handful of current federal judges with disabilities on the list, yet there are approximately nine hundred authorized federal judgeships.[8] If Whitehead is confirmed, this number will grow by one, and hopefully this number will continue to grow to create a judiciary that better reflects its citizens.

Note: This list was last updated on November 17, 2022.

  • Sonia Sotomayor, United States Supreme Court Justice: Type I diabetes[9]
  • Bruce M. Selya, Senior United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit: legally blind[10]
  • David S. Tatel, Senior United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit: blind, has a service dog[11]
  • Ronald Gould, United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair[12]
  • Myron H. Thompson, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama: polio survivor[13]
  • Vanessa Lynne Bryant, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut: legally blind[14]
  • Robert W. Gettleman, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois: polio survivor[15]
  • Donovan W. Frank, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota: addiction recovery[16]
  • Eric N. Vitaliano, Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York: blind[17]
  • Richard C. Casey, United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York: blind[18]
  • Anne M. Burke, Illinois Supreme Court Justice: dyslexia[19]
  • Richard Bernstein, Michigan Supreme Court Justice: first blind justice on his court[20]
  • Richard B. Teitelman, Missouri Supreme Court Justice: blind[21]
  • Peter J. O’Donoghue, New York State Supreme Court: blind[22]
  • Grace Helen Whitener, Washington Supreme Court Justice: disabled[23]
  • Michael J. Murphy, Illinois Appellate Court Judge: addiction recovery[24]
  • Charles Susano, Tennessee Appeals Court Judge: paralysis, wheelchair user (longest-serving Tennessee appellate judge)[25]
  • Richard S. Brown, Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge: late-deafened or hard-of-hearing[26]
  • Louis Corbin, Fourth Circuit Duval County (Florida) Judge: blind (appointed in 1972)[27]
  • Nicholas T. Pomaro, Associate Circuit Judge of Cook County (Illinois): blind (appointed in 1976)[28]
  • Tony Cothren, Jefferson County Circuit Judge (Alabama): blind[29]
  • Charles W. Ray Jr., Superior Court Judge for the Fourth Judicial District of Alaska: late-deafened or hard-of-hearing[30]
  • Andi Mudryk, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge: osteogenesis imperfecta (also notably the first openly transgender person in California history to be appointed to serve on California State Court)[31]
  • Tim Fall, Yolo County Superior Court (California) Judge: anxiety and depression[32]
  • David Holton, Jefferson County District Judge (Kentucky): Kentucky’s first blind judge[33]
  • Rachel Krause, Georgia Superior Court judge: paralysis, wheelchair user[34]
  • Patrick Flanagan, Washoe District (Nevada) Court Chief Judge: paralysis, wheelchair user[35]
  • Meenu Sasser, Palm Beach County (Florida) Circuit Judge: cancer survivor[36]
  • Robert Pipia, District Court of Nassau County (New York) Judge: muscular dystrophy, wheelchair user[37]
  • Howard Sturim, District Court of Nassau County (New York) Judge: Type II diabetes, uses a service dog[38]
  • Duncan Beagle, Genesee County (Michigan) Circuit Court judge: paralysis, wheelchair user[39]
  • Tom Dawson, Kentucky district judge: polio survivor, wheelchair user[40]
  • Ed Follis Jr., Lincoln County Justice Court Judge (Texas): polio survivor[41]
  • Dan Monaco, Florida Circuit Court judge: polio survivor[42]
  • Mary Beth O’Connor, Federal Administrative Law Judge: addiction recovery[43]
  • Ralph K. “Tripp” Anderson, III, Chief Judge, South Carolina Administrative Law Court: paralysis, wheelchair user[44]
  • Cathy Sellers, Administrative Law Judge, Florida Division of Administrative Hearings: cancer survivor[45]
  • Azeema Akram, Administrative Law Judge for Illinois Human Rights Commission: deaf[46]
  • Jacob Frost, Dane County (Wisconsin) Circuit Court Judge: spinal muscular atrophy, first judge with a disability on his court[47]

  1. Disability Impacts All of Us,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  2. Diverse Perspectives: People with Disabilities Fulfilling Your Business Goals,” U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy.

  3. Nancy Scherer, “Diversifying the Federal Bench: Is Universal Legitimacy for the U.S. Justice System Possible?Northwestern University Law Review 105 (2) (2011): 587–634.

  4. Disability Impacts All of Us,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  5. Ayanna Alexander and Madison Alder, “Judge Pick With Disability Raises Hopes for a Group Often Unseen,” Bloomberg Law, October 7, 2022.

  6. Danielle Root, Jake Faleschini, and Grace Oyenubi, “Building a More Inclusive Federal Judiciary,” Center for American Progress, October 3, 2019.

  7. Debra Cassens Weiss, “Judges are stressed by their decisions, and 20% have at least one depressive symptom, survey finds,” ABA Journal, January 7, 2021.

  8. Authorized Judgeships,” Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

  9. Samantha Balaban, “‘Just Ask!’ Says Sonia Sotomayor. She Knows What It’s Like To Feel Different,” Weekend Edition, NPR, September 1, 2019.

  10. Ayanna Alexander and Madison Alder, “Judge Pick With Disability Raises Hopes for a Group Often Unseen,” Bloomberg Law, October 7, 2022.

  11. Ann E. Marimow, “Judge David Tatel’s lack of eyesight never defined him, but his blindness is woven into the culture of the influential appeals court in D.C.,” Washington Post, July 8, 2021.

  12. Pathways to the Bench: U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ronald M. Gould,” U.S. Courts.

  13. Gary Banks, “Myron H. Thompson, Life and Times of a Renowned Federal Court Judge,” United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, July 29, 2020.

  14. Ayanna Alexander and Madison Alder, “Judge Pick With Disability Raises Hopes for a Group Often Unseen,” Bloomberg Law, October 7, 2022.

  15. Judge Robert W. Gettleman, “Commentary: A polio survivor’s unique prism into the value of social distancing,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 2020.

  16. Patrick Krill and Bree Buchanan, “Speaking Out to End Stigma,” American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

  17. Mamadi Corra, “Disability and Access Perspectives from Judiciary Personnel on Issues of Accessibility,” The Judges Journal 59 (2), American Bar Association Judicial Division, May 13, 2020.

  18. Richard C. Casey, “A Jurist Who Happens to Be Blind in the Federal Courts,” Braille Monitor 41(11), National Federation of the Blind, December 1998.

  19. Success Stories: Anne M. Burke, Illinois Supreme Court Justice,” The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

  20. Justice Richard Bernstein,” Michigan Courts.

  21. Doron Dorfman, “The Blind Justice Paradox: Judges with Visual Impairments and the Disability Metaphor,” Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law 5 (2) (2016): 272–305.

  22. Doron Dorfman, “The Blind Justice Paradox: Judges with Visual Impairments and the Disability Metaphor,” Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law 5 (2) (2016): 272–305.

  23. Mark Joseph Stern, “Washington State Now Has the Most Diverse Supreme Court In History,” Slate, April 17, 2020.

  24. Judge Michael J. Murphy, “My Story: Judge Michael J. Murphy,” Supreme Court of Ohio & the Ohio Judicial System, 2008.

  25. John North, “Charles Susano, 86, retired longtime Tennessee appeals court judge, dies,” WBIR 10 News (Knoxville, TN), May 10, 2022.

  26. Mamadi Corra, “Disability and Access Perspectives from Judiciary Personnel on Issues of Accessibility,” The Judges Journal 59 (2), American Bar Association Judicial Division, May 13, 2020.

  27. Doron Dorfman, “The Blind Justice Paradox: Judges with Visual Impairments and the Disability Metaphor,” Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law 5 (2) (2016): 272–305.

  28. Doron Dorfman, “The Blind Justice Paradox: Judges with Visual Impairments and the Disability Metaphor,” Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law 5 (2) (2016): 272–305.

  29. Doron Dorfman, “The Blind Justice Paradox: Judges with Visual Impairments and the Disability Metaphor,” Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law 5 (2) (2016): 272–305.

  30. Mamadi Corra, “Disability and Access Perspectives from Judiciary Personnel on Issues of Accessibility,” The Judges Journal 59 (2), American Bar Association Judicial Division, May 13, 2020.

  31. Vicki Gonzalez, “Interview: Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Andi Mudryk on her historic appointment,” CapRadio (Sacramento, CA), April 14, 2022.

  32. Kaiser Health News, “A Judge Takes His Mental Health Struggles Public,” HealthLeaders, November 9, 2021.

  33. Shay McAlister, “State’s first blind judge retires, leaves powerful legacy in the court system,” WHAS11 (Louisville, KY), September 26, 2017.

  34. Drew Jubera, “Shooting for More than Normal,” Shepherd Center, January 24, 2019.

  35. Marcella Corona, “Longtime Reno judge Patrick Flanagan dies,” Reno Gazette-Journal, October 6, 2017.

  36. Jane Musgrave, “Judge Sasser fights off cancer, remains committed to court innovation,” Palm Beach (FL) Post, August 23, 2018.

  37. Maggie Callahan, “The Year of Independence,” Muscular Dystrophy Association, May 4, 2022.

  38. Laura Blasey, “Diabetic-alert dog is judge’s courtroom companion,“ Newsday (Melville, NY), September 16, 2018.

  39. Tim Jagielo, “Feeling ‘Blessed’: Wheelchair bound Judge Duncan Beagle positive through disability,” Tri-County Times (Fenton, MI), March 24, 2012.

  40. Dennis George, The Kentucky Standard, “Despite childhood polio, former judge lived full life,” News-Enterprise (Elizabethtown, KY), November 7, 2021.

  41. Ray Westbrook, “The A-J Remembers: Polio slowed, but never stopped, Judge Ed Follis,” Lubbock (TX) Avalanche-Journal, July 31, 2016.

  42. Marv Cermak, “Cermak: Schenectady’s Dan Monaco overcomes childhood polio on way to judgeship,” Times Union (Albany), December 8, 2015.

  43. Program Announcement: From Junkie to Judge; Overcoming Addiction and Maintaining Wellness and Recovery,” New Jersey Attorney General’s Advocacy Institute, 2022.

  44. Living with a Disability in the Profession,” American Bar Association Judicial Division Program Library, 2021.

  45. Living with a Disability in the Profession,” American Bar Association Judicial Division Program Library, 2021.

  46. Azeema Akram, “The power of my hearing loss,” My Path to Law, ABA Journal, October 1, 2020.

  47. Ed Treleven, “Know Your Madisonian: Mock trial of Christopher Columbus set Dane County’s first disabled judge on career path,” Wisconsin State Journal, September 19, 2020.

By: Ann Motl

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