BETHEL - As the years passed, Chuck Ray struggled more and more with thoughts of what he would lose when his hearing eventually failed.
Ray spent many years as an Anchorage lawyer, building a renowned private practice focused on coastal and maritime issues. His greatest professional passion was the give-and-take that occurs inside a courtroom, the challenge of arguing a complex case, the rush of successfully representing a client.
How could that continue when the hearing loss he suffered degraded to full-blown deafness?
And doctors for a long time knew nothing except the obvious: something was wrong with his hearing, and it was getting worse.
In 2007, when Ray was in his fifties, the noise became a constant cacophony of high-pitched ringing, screeching, something like an idling airplane engine: no more words.
“I would be less than honest if I said that it wasn't frustrating,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders, and his head shook side to side.
For a moment he thought seriously of early retirement, but instead he settled on a less certain, more difficult path: he decided to find a way to stay at work.
He learned to read lips, and he learned that specialized court reporters can provide realtime translation, so that nothing is lost .
In an ordinary court hearing, the reporter enters sworn testimony into the official record. Realtime translators write every word spoken in a courtroom, whether from sworn testimony or a member of the public attending a hearing, and the words are transmitted constantly to a series of screens. To attain the certification, one must type at least 200 words per minute with 96 percent accuracy. In action the process looks something like a teleprompter run by hands that move as fast as those of a concert pianist.
“I would wager that a significant percentage of Alaska judges don’t hear as well as the reporters I have,” he said. “With that I knew I could interact with the legal community – witnesses, jurors, all that. My concern was whether clients would be a little concerned.”
As it turned out, Ray was preceded by his reputation as an expert on coastal matters, and his practice continued to thrive.
A seat on the Bethel bench of the Alaska Superior Court opened up in 2012.
Ray submitted an application to become one of two Superior Court judges serving the Fourth Judicial District, an area composed of a huge stretch of rural Alaska that stretches from the Canadian border across the interior to Bethel. The Alaska Judicial Council graded Ray's application as the best submitted, and it was one of four forwarded to Gov. Sean Parnell.
The Republican spent many years working as a lawyer before entering politics and remembers interacting with Ray in court.
“I had the chance many years ago to spend about a week in Glennallen on a case that Chuck Ray was a part of,” Parnell said. “He was a very competent, qualified attorney and just a ‘salt of the earth’ kind of guy.”
To be successful as a judge responsible for settling the most serious crimes that occur in a land area about the size of Oregon, it is imperative for a judge to understand the state and emphasize with all types of people, Parnell said.
Before Ray entered the white-collar world, he followed a path not taken by many who apply to become one of the state’s leading judge.
When he was a young man and a student at Stanford University, Ray made his way north to Alaska to work on a fishing boat in Cordova “for a summer.” He wound up fishing the Gulf of Mexico and returned to Alaska for several years to continue working on the water.
“I ended up commercial fishing in one way or another for about 10 years,” Ray said. “I fished all over the Alaska coast, some in Washington, out the Bering Sea, way out the chain, crab fishing for a number of years. I salmon fished, tendered, did it all.”
Fishing for Ray was a fun job that paid for his undergraduate studies and for a law degree, and it also led to a career not too distant from the waters he once fished.
The mix of legal expertise, life experience and a wholehearted embrace of rural life and traditions made Ray a clear-cut favorite for the seat in Parnell’s view, and he was appointed to serve the Fourth District.
Ray is the first deaf judge in the state's history and one of the only deaf trial judges in the world.
The historic move prompted predictable questions from the legal community and Juneau lawmakers, with two concerns driving many conversations during the 2013 legislative session: Can a judge effectively control a courtroom without hearing? And at what cost?
‘LIKE ANY OTHER JUDGE’
David Henderson is a Bethel defense lawyer who often appears in Judge Ray’s courtroom.
"I think one of the big concerns when Judge Ray came to the bench was that there would be big delays, that hearings would take forever. How could someone with a hearing impairment conduct a courtroom?"
The answer surprised Henderson and many others.
"What I found when I first appeared in front of him, it was remarkable. It went just like I was in front of any other judge," Henderson said. “You forget he’s deaf.”
Many others across the local justice system offered a similar assessment of Ray’s performance, and it is easy to understand why. He more or less fully retains his voice and has no trouble communicating verbally with lawyers, defendants or anyone else.
Ray said the difference is a supportive group of people around him and that he has access to the best tools offered by modern technology. “With the proper setup, it’s not an issue.”
The cornerstone of the proper setup is a well-designed system of computers, screens and microphones, operated by certified realtime translators. They come to Bethel at a high price.
Realtime translators in the United States number in the hundreds – four in Alaska and a handful on the West Coast. The going rate elsewhere ranges from $90 to $140 per hour, but like many other things, the price is higher in Bethel.
Initial setup and first-year personnel expenses cost the state court system $456,800, and the court system set aside $365,000 to cover recurring costs in Fiscal Year 2015. That covers the salaries of realtime translators and their travel and lodging expenses as they filter in and out of Western Alaska in two-week increments, a majority coming up from California and Nevada.
Governor Parnell said that is an acceptable price to pay to get the right man for the job.
“I've treated the selection of judges with great sincerity and seriousness because these appointments will last much longer than a governor is in office,” Parnell said.
Judge Ray said he is too busy to give much thought to criticism of his work or his path to the job, and he instead focuses on the constant flow of cases that arise in the state’s busiest judicial district. But he does hope people measure him the same as his colleagues.
“If there are issues about the quality of what I do, I hope they're only the same concerns that people would express about any other trial judge.”