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Deaf judge makes impression

August 15, 2007

Chuck McCollough
Express-News

 CIBOLO — As unhappy-looking defendants fill the municipal court here and prepare to plead their cases, most don’t know that Judge Marion T. Carson won’t hear a word they say. He may be the only totally deaf presiding judge in the state, although the State Bar of Texas said it doesn’t track judges with disabilities.  

Carson had been a trial lawyer for 37 years when a serious accident in 2000 left him deaf.

“At first I was depressed, but then I decided to do something about my situation and I went to deaf school at SAC (San Antonio College),” he said.

At SAC’s American Sign Language and Interpreter Training Program, “the professors were great and taught me how to sign (use sign language) and read lips and use my other senses more. It took me about four years to get pretty good at lip reading and using sign language,” Carson said.

As a hearing person for the first 63 years of his life, Carson found the adjustment a challenge. But he said his training at St. Mary’s Law School and a long trial career helped him adapt to a world of silence.

But that adjustment has left a few scars. Carson owns a small ranch south of San Antonio and was running a bull and some calves through a chute one day when his deafness nearly got him killed.

“I ran the bull through first and didn’t know there was a rattlesnake in the chute,” the judge recalled. The bull charged back at Carson who didn’t hear either the rattlesnake or the 2,700-pound animal.

“The bull ripped my head open from the tip of my nose all the way up,” Carson said, adding that episode helped him learn to rely on his other senses and be more cautious.

Carson was a municipal judge in Somerset when he lost his hearing and said that suburban city was very understanding as he ran the court with his new disability.

Eventually he left Somerset and then became one of two candidates for Cibolo municipal judge. One of the people making the final decision was Cibolo City Councilman Mark Winn, a disabled Vietnam veteran.

“We looked at the credentials and background of both candidates. Judge Carson was very direct and to the point about his disability and said it would not affect the quality the court. He was selected based on the kind of judge he is,” Winn said.

“I felt a kinship with Judge Carson and I always feel rewarded when someone overcomes a substantial handicap,” said Winn, who often comes to watch municipal court, which is held the second and fourth Thursday of each month.

Carson, who will be 70 Saturday, uses two hearing aids, lip reading and a captioning system that transforms courtroom talk into text on a computer screen so he can read what is said if he misses anything through lip reading.

“The hearing aids are at maximum power and only give me a distant sound that helps when reading people’s lips,” he said.

He has been Cibolo municipal judge for nearly a year and the way he runs his court is a model for others, said City Manager Todd Parton.

“Judge Carson is one of the best judges you will find because he is so professional, and other cities in our area are studying the way he runs his court to look for ways to improve their courts,” Parton said.

At the start of court proceedings, Carson tells defendants he is deaf and instructs them to look straight at him and speak clearly so he can read their lips.

“I sometimes have trouble reading the lips of people with moustaches or other facial hair or those who mumble, but the captioning system is my backup,” he said.

Carson’s easy-going manner seems to put most defendants in a less-stressed frame of mind while being in a place they don’t want to be.

Willie Saunders was in court about a defensive driving course and said he was surprised to learn the judge was deaf.

“I thought it was unusual and wondered how he could do the job in that condition, but it is fascinating to see him do the job,” said Saunders, who lives in Cibolo.

State and federal grants pay for the captioning service and computer technology Carson uses. The captioning system, which requires several phone lines and a “captioner” located in Colorado, uses one of the phone lines to hear the judge and defendants speaking and types those conversations into text that scrolls across the computer screen.

During his time as a municipal judge, Carson has come across at least three defendants who were deaf. In those cases, the deaf judge and deaf defendants communicated in sign language.

“The deaf defendants seem pretty surprised the judge could use ASL (American Sign Language) and, of course, there was nothing for the captioner to type because there were no words spoken,” Carson said, adding that his municipal court is not a court of record where transcripts are required.

Miguel Matos has been Cibolo city prosecutor for about a year and wasn’t sure what to think when told he would be working with a deaf judge.

“I was a little apprehensive about that and because I am a pretty new attorney,” Matos said. “But from the moment I met Judge Carson I found him to be warm and pleasant, and I am incredibly impressed with his ability to read lips in court and he uses the coolest technology to help him.

“In fact, the first couple of months we didn’t have the captioner and the judge ran the court just by lip reading. Judge Carson’s courts operates as well or better than any other court,” the prosecutor said.

Carson went to St. Mary’s Law School with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger in the 1960s.

Wolff remembers his old law school buddy but didn’t know he had become deaf.

“It has been a while since I ran into Marion, but it doesn’t surprise me that he has overcome a loss of hearing and continued to be successful,” Wolff said. “He was always an optimist, a hardworking guy who didn’t give up.”

Carson said his previous experiences also have helped him to cope with the loss of hearing late in life. His disability especially has taught him to focus.

He is a former military intelligence officer (1954-1961), a top student at SAC and St. Mary’s University (while working on an undergraduate degree) and is licensed to practice law involving contracts, commercial and corporate matters, singers and artists’ recording copyrights, banking, probate, wills and trusts.

“My deafness is a blessing in one way because it has taught me to look at people when I talk to them,” Carson said. “I have to look at them to read their lips but I read a lot more in their face.

“You would be surprised at the feelings and depth of a person you can see when you really look at them and their gestures while talking to them. When I speak to hearing people, I suggest they try just one hour really looking at people when they talking to them so they can really see things. It is amazing.”

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/neighbors/northcentral/stories/MYSA081507.nc15deafjudge.1dfd3df.html

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