Mobile phones ordinarily are strictly forbidden in the marble courtroom of the nation's highest court, but the justices are making an exception next week when roughly a dozen deaf and hard-of-hearing lawyers will be admitted to the Supreme Court bar.
The lawyers will use their phones to see a real-time transcript as they take part in an April 19 swearing-in ceremony featuring the largest group of hearing-impaired attorneys ever admitted at one time to practice before the high court.
Advocates for deaf lawyers say they hope the event will encourage others with disabilities to pursue legal careers.
"We wanted to do an event that would help break down stereotypes and demonstrate clearly that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals can achieve anything they set their minds to," said Anat Maytal, a New York lawyer and president of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association.
Nearly 4,000 lawyers join the Supreme Court bar each year, though the vast majority will never actually represent a client there. Membership requires a $200 fee, membership in a state bar for three years and sponsorship by two current Supreme Court bar members.
Still, it's considered an honor to stand before the justices and be welcomed in person by Chief Justice John Roberts. Maytal says her group spent weeks working with court officials to set up the unique arrangements for the ceremony.
Two sign language interpreters will be in the courtroom and a special court reporter will be there to offer real-time captions that hearing-impaired lawyers can see on cellphones or other electronic devices.
It's a big exception to the rules for a court that is famously slow to adapt to new technology and requires everyone participating in or watching arguments to leave electronic devices outside the courtroom.
Maytal said the court set up a special wireless connection limited only to those participating in the ceremony. The phones can't be used for any other purpose and no photography will be allowed.
"The very fact that the Supreme Court will be admitting a group of deaf and hard-of-hearing lawyers shows tremendous progress," Maytal said. "We hope that this event signals to everyone that deaf and hard-of-hearing attorneys are capable of succeeding at the highest levels of the profession just like everyone else."
The ceremony will take place at 10 a.m., followed by arguments in two cases.
Maytal estimates that there are fewer than 300 deaf or hard-of-hearing practicing lawyers nationwide. She said many face obstacles in getting the accommodations they need to attend law school, take the bar exam, or practice in courthouses.