New Challenges for New Michigan Supreme Court Justice

By  | 

When oral arguments begin at Michigan's Supreme Court, one Justice will not be taking notes. Justice Richard Bernstein is the state's first blind Justice. He took News Ten's Ann Emmerich behind the scenes to show how he's navigating his new role and his new surroundings.

Justice Bernstein smiles ear to ear inside his chambers at the Michigan Supreme Court. After practicing law for 15 years, the 41 year-old Detroit area native from the Bernstein Law Firm is beginning what he hopes will be the rest of his career on the state's highest court.

Bernstein is known for his work as a private attorney, fighting for the rights of the disabled. He says he will apply the same passion and enthusiasm on the other side of the bench. But first, he faces a new challenge, learning how to get around his new place of work. Bernstein says, "Transitions don't happen easily for a blind person, you have to put tremendous work, tremendous effort and tremendous intensity into everything that you do."

Justice Bernstein took us for a behind the scenes look during his first week on the job. We walked along with him as he made his way from his chambers to the private conference room for Justices. He then took us to the Robing Room, where each Justice has a wooden locker, containing their robes. He was excited to learn his name had been placed on the third locker. While the walk isn't second nature yet, the Justice is pretty comfortable with getting around the floor he will spend most of his time.
"I've learned this floor pretty well. We're on the 6th floor. So the way you do it is you start with kind of small things and kind of memorize and internalize small things."

Memory and internalization are two words Justice Bernstein uses often to describe how he approaches everything he does. He says for a blind person, its a way of life. The Justice says he spent the last 6 weeks reading up on the first 10 cases he'll hear. He doesn't use braille to read the volumes of information required as a Judge. Instead, Justice Bernstein relies on his assistant to read out loud because he says it's more efficient and allows him to memorize everything he needs to know for each case. "Where others can rely on notes, and use notation and kind of look at the case that way, in my situation that's not an option, so it actually requires me to know the case in the most intensive manner possible because I simply don't have a choice but to do it that way."

When Justice Bernstein takes his seat on the bench for the first day of arguments, he will not have a note pad. But his mind and his senses will be hard at work memorizing and internalizing. "I think the biggest challenge I think I'm going to have in terms of logistics, especially on the first day, is actually really knowing which way to face because I don't know where the people speak from. So even though I can't see them you want to face in their direction, just out of respect. That's something I've always been taught."