By Alan Graham
He was blinded by shrapnel in Vietnam and now uses a seeing-eye dog for assistance to walk to the bus stop or the ferryboat which will take him across the bay to the city. He will take his place on the bench as a superior judge in the halls of justice on Broadway in downtown San Diego.
To watch him as he performs his duties is to not be aware that he is blind because he looks at the case file in front of him. When he speaks to the defendant or the attorneys, he looks directly at them. He is stern when dispensing justice, but he is lenient when it is warranted.
Using his own life as an example, he questions a defendant about his lack of compliance with his probation officer. He tells of his own youth and his companions. “We played football and baseball. We went swimming. If you do things like that, you will stay out of trouble.” He looks down at the files and then directly at the defendant. “I will grant probation to you on the following conditions…” What follows are certainly nothing short of “rules to follow to keep yourself out of jail.” Even the most “Artful Dodger” would never be able to weasel his way out of the maze of conditions set by the judge.
The files he uses are in brail. He looks as though he is reading them but he is simply running his fingers over them. Most people in the courtroom are unaware that he cannot see them at all because he does not act like a blind man.
This formidable gentleman decided to practice law when he became a civilian again. He enrolled with several other blind students. “It was more like an experiment,” he recalls. There was no apparatus in the school to facilitate the visually impaired. No brail law books, no tutorials — so everything had to be cobbled together in order for them to begin their education.
All of them proudly passed the bar, and some four decades later, Judge David M. Szumowski still proudly serves the community of San Diego, California.
I asked him about his dog and how they work together. I have often seen him walking to and from work. One morning, he walked past my house and there were some low hanging bushes that hit him in the face. He stopped dead in his tracks, backed up a few steps, and walked at the bushes again. He stopped just when he reached the overgrowth, then spoke sternly to the dog. “Here, here,” he said reaching up and grabbing the branch. He shook it briskly making the dog repeat the maneuver again. This time the dog halted before they reached the spot where the obstruction stood.
I told the judge that I had been standing there when the incident occurred congratulating him on his success with the animal. I trimmed the overhanging offensive palms and I keep my eye on their growth.
After my interview with the judge, and some months since the incident, I returned home to find the very same branches protruding menacingly once again. I will check them more often now. When I do see other obstructions, I tell the owners about the encroachments. The neighbors are all quite happy to comply.
In closing, I asked the judge if there was anything he wanted to say to the public about himself and his dog. He wanted to let people know that his dog is not a pet, but that it is a working dog. “So if you see me on the street, please do not approach me and try to pet my dog.” I have seen parents let children walk up to these loving animals unaware that the animal is decidedly a working dog, once again, certainly not a pet.
Recently, I interviewed a prosecuting attorney who uses a wheel chair. I asked if he had any difficulties with similar situations of access or obstructions in his daily life. Like the judge, he was upbeat and found few obstacles. He simply deals with life as we all do.
It is through these and similar examples that I am acutely aware of how the human spirit can be indefatigable in the face of adversity and how it can prevail with sheer force of will.