Justice is Blind: Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein
When recently asked about his life philosophy and position on the Michigan Supreme Court, Justice Richard Bernstein stated, “life experience is what makes you who you are. The more experiences, the more you understand adversity and discrimination, the better you are in a position like this.” It is clear that the 1995 University of Michigan Phi Beta Kappa member, born without sight, has not let his own life’s challenges hold him back, professionally or personally.
Although Bernstein comes from a family of well-known Michigan attorneys, Bernstein was not drawn to the law because of family connection alone. He resolutely believes that “the law is a great vehicle that allows you to do what you believe in. Law can result in social change.”
As a blind person, Bernstein knows just how important social change can be for those with disabilities. During his time as an attorney with his family’s practice, he used the power of the law to fight for the rights of the disabled and to help set national accessibility standards through landmark cases against Delta Airlines and the University of Michigan.
Beyond the courtroom, Bernstein also instilled his passion for growth and social change in others. When teaching a class on social justice at the University of Michigan, Bernstein created a learning environment in which students were just as concerned about their beliefs as they were about their grades. “I wanted students to be themselves. I wanted students to learn how they can change the world.”
Now, as a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, Bernstein brings the same enthusiasm and empathy to cases that come before the court. Elected to office on the campaign slogan “Justice is Blind,” Bernstein began his eight year tenure at the beginning of 2015. He incorporates the principles of Phi Beta Kappa into his role as a Justice every day, noting that “as a judge, you have to always keep learning. Every case affects a person in a profound way. With each case I read, I am able to learn and understand more.”
Bernstein also sets high personal goals. Along with fighting for disability rights as an attorney and securing a position on the Michigan Supreme Court, he also has participated in 20 marathons and one full Ironman, setting and exceeding personal goals that he once thought impossible. For most of his life, Bernstein would not have characterized himself as an athlete. However, after contact with the non-profit organization Achilles International several years ago, his perception began to change.
Achilles International promotes the premise that no matter your disability, you can participate in mainstream running competitions. Guides from Achilles helped Bernstein build confidence and speed, slowly increasing his distance. When asked if he wanted to run in a marathon, Bernstein agreed, and more marathons followed. Even after an accident in Central Park in New York City shattered his left hip and pelvis leaving him with chronic pain, Bernstein has continued to run marathons, recognizing his challenging new reality and drawing upon his experiences, positive and negative, for continued empathy and insight.
Bernstein’s accomplishment and commitment to helping others can be partly traced back to a pivotal moment at Northwestern University where he attended law school. At a time of great struggle, Bernstein affirmed that if he graduated and passed the bar, “I will never waste this opportunity and I will use it to do things that are right.” This affirmation continues to guide Bernstein as he continues a path of learning and understanding.