The Hon. Judge Ronald M. Gould currently sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
What led you to pursue a career in law?
I did not know any lawyers when I was growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, and I really did not know then what lawyers did. Even as an undergraduate, at the University of Pennsylvania, I had little understanding about our nation’s great system of law and the protections given to individuals by our Constitution. But, lucky for me, about the time I was thinking about going to graduate school, a roommate of mine was enthusiastic about the virtues of going to law school. I saw that this would be a very worthwhile thing to do, so I applied to a few law schools, was accepted at the University of Michigan Law School, and decided to go there and do my best.
When you were a practicing attorney, did you disclose your MS to clients and coworkers?
For quite a while as a practicing lawyer, after I received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) around 1990, I told no one. It was not totally certain that the diagnosis was correct, but it became a bit clearer year after year. In any event, I was not sure how this would impact my relations with other lawyers at my private law firm, Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle, or how it would be viewed by my clients. Thus, for a period of time in the 1990s, after the MS had progressed to a point where I had to walk with a noticeable limp, I still had not revealed the diagnosis. One of the first times the limp became a serious problem was on a mountain climbing trip when hiking downhill from the summit of Mt. Baker. Toward the end I was having major difficulty with my leg and knee. I put this off in my mind as strain from the climb, but as time went on and the limp persisted, I came to realize it was likely from the MS. I also had a few incidents where my foot dragged, causing me to trip on one thing or another. In any event, I kept the matter to myself, my wife, and my doctor for many years.
However, disclosure became important when the MS progressed to the point where I had to use a wheelchair. I had concerns about this. There certainly could be problems or challenges posed by lack of mobility in some cases. For example, I recall one corporate client for which I worked, where its president had a second-story office and no elevator. So the president had to come to my office to see me, which is not the normal way presidents of companies like to operate. As another example, I had a major litigation that required visiting plants in a very remote part of our country, with access available only by flight on a small plane that could negotiate the tiny landing strip. That was not possible after I started using my wheelchair.
But in most cases, use of a wheelchair, or having some mobility limits, posed absolutely no problem. I recall one case where I became concerned about traveling in a wheelchair to San Francisco to meet with a general counsel representative for a big corporate client for which I was handling major litigation. When I was hired I had not been in a wheelchair. I candidly mentioned my concerns to the general counsel, who immediately set my mind at ease, saying that I need not worry because they did not hire me to run a foot race. I had similar positive experiences with many other clients, and my general experience was that they were not worried about me having a disability, they were only concerned about what would be the likely impact in their case. When I got good results for these clients, they continued to give me work, and my practice did not seem impacted by the disability.
What accommodations do you use for your work?
This has changed a bit over time because my disability increased. I traveled often in my private law practice including to Portland, San Francisco, Anchorage, Chicago, New York City, and Tokyo, and managed fine with my wheelchair. In the process of becoming a judge, the disability had progressed. When I went to the White House for an interview about whether President Clinton would nominate me for an open position on the Ninth Circuit, I was using canes. When the confirmation process began, I was using my wheelchair for some key interviews, and also had my confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate in my wheelchair. This did not bother the U.S. Senate, which voted to confirm President Clinton’s nomination and gave me the job.
After I became a judge, initially I needed very little in the way of accommodations. I had a personal employee come by chambers to help me when I needed. As disability progressed, I decided to have my personal employee at my expense stay at my chambers throughout the day whenever I needed personal help.
When my right hand (I am right-handed) stopped working, I taught myself to use my left hand, which was less smooth but could still get the job done writing or typing. When my left hand stopped working adequately to type, I started to use voice recognition software. In law practice I had learned to dictate fairly polished letters and even briefs in close to a final form, and so use of the voice recognition software enabled me to continue preparing written work. Today I sometimes use voice recognition software, but more often dictate to my personal assistant, who types drafts as I speak.
Has technology changed how you work, or assisted you in significant ways?
Yes, technology has made it possible for me to continue working despite advance of disability. It would be more of a challenge to get my work done if I did not have a power wheelchair. And it would be harder to get written work done if I could not use voice recognition software. Also, although in my earlier years on the bench I travelled frequently for oral arguments, in recent years I have used video conferencing tools for court appearances outside of Seattle. These are illustrative, and there are other technological ways that my disability has been accommodated.
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers, judges, or law students with disabilities?
My advice would start with ideas I share with all my law clerks. Set worthwhile personal goals and take effective steps to make progress on those goals. Make a full commitment to seek success at whatever organization employs them. When feasible, try to get involved in activities in your own communities.
As for their disabilities, whether law students or lawyers or judges, focus on what you can do, rather than on what you cannot do. Students or lawyers or judges have all the tools they need available to perform with excellence. Use available tools to their maximum advantage, to accommodate any weaknesses or disability. Sometimes I think that maybe I could write a bit better if I could personally put pen to paper at any time day or night. But that is not necessary to perform with excellence. What is more important is to have the clear objective to perform at a certain level, and then to take the steps needed to get there. Also, it is worth noting that everyone you meet has some problems in their life; all people need to adapt, meet challenges, refuse to give up, and keep working toward their goals.
Has the legal profession become more disability diverse and inclusive since you first began practicing? What key challenges/obstacles remain?
I do not really have personal skills in social sciences or the vast knowledge that might be needed to answer this question properly. However, from my experience I can make these two points. First, society as a whole, in part as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related state laws, has become more accommodating to those with disabilities. Second, I have had many law clerks with serious disabilities who did their work with excellence, including two law clerks who were in wheelchairs, a law clerk with one leg and partial mobility aided by use of crutches, and a blind law clerk who got our tough work done with the help of specialized computer software that let her hear a spoken version of whatever was written. And probably there have been some others who had disabilities of which I was not aware because they were accommodated effectively.
How do you think the justice system is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What can be improved?
Again, my ability to answer this question is constrained. It would be hard for me to speak about the justice system as a whole because there are many parts of it that I do not see. But as for the parts I do see, it seems to me that attitudes are positive about accommodating disability. I have seen many lawyers with serious disabilities of blindness or limited mobility argue persuasively with great skill in the courtroom. Of course, I believe that our courts should seek to accommodate persons with disabilities.
You have hired a number of clerks with disabilities in the past. Do you believe that other judges are as inclusive as well, and have you found these clerks to bring unique abilities and perspectives to their work because of their disabilities?
I cannot speak about the practices of other judges. I expect that my colleague judges, if they hire a law clerk with disability who has done well in law school, will not be disappointed. I generally look to law school results and professor recommendations. Also, there is doubtless a likelihood that those with disabilities may have special perspectives. But again that is likely true with all persons who have different life experiences, which have yielded varying perspectives and insights, and this is one of the reasons that most employers try to gain and keep a good measure of diversity in their workforce.
Have you done any work to advance the rights of persons with disabilities, either as an individual or in your capacity as a judge?
My job here is to apply the law evenly to all those who appear before me. I do not give a special bonus point to parties or to advocates with disabilities, but nor would any person with disability ever be penalized for it in my mind. I have written a few opinions that dealt with rights of those in wheelchairs. Two important published opinions are Doran v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 524 F.3d 1034 (9th Cir. 2008), and Kirola v. City and County of San Francisco, 2017 WL 2676768, __F.3d__ (9th Cir. 2017). The opinions state their reasoning and speak for themselves, and I make it a policy not to comment publicly about my opinions.