Attorney Richard Bernstein announced his bid for the Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 in front of the Michigan Hall of Justice.
Michigan LiveMedia | By Kyle Feldscher | Nov 2014
For 15 years, Michigan Supreme Court Justice-elect Richard Bernstein operated the public services division of his father’s law firm with a “military-like precision.” He says he'll bring that intensity to Michigan's highest court.
The first blind person elected to the Michigan Supreme Court, Bernstein required rigid organization, structured schedules and focused execution to win cases. Now, a week after Tuesday’s election, Bernstein said he’s readying himself for Lansing in the same way.
“We will do everything, not just well, but I have an insistence on excellence,” Bernstein said Tuesday in a phone interview. “This is historic, this is the first time this (a blind person being elected to the Supreme Court) has happened. … My chambers will not just operate well, they will be exemplary.”
Incumbent justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano won re-election to the Michigan Supreme Court on Nov. 4, rounding out the three spots that were up for grabs in the midterm election.
However, it is the election of Bernstein that has grabbed the most headlines in the week following the election. Bernstein is the son of Sam Bernstein of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm, whose commercials have been a staple in the state of Michigan for years.
It’s a historic moment for blind people in the state of Michigan, said Rick Stevens, director of the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“It’s a confirmation people are chosen on the basis of their abilities and not their disabilities,” Stevens said.
Stevens said Bernstein’s track record is impressive, having served on the Wayne State Board of Governors, taught law at the University of Michigan’s Law School and won cases that made Detroit Metro Airport comply with American with Disability Act requirements and required the city of Detroit put wheelchair lifts on buses to give all riders equal access.
Bernstein’s election could be a major moment in blind and visually impaired people getting more considerations for jobs in the state, Stevens said.
“I hope it serves recognition to other potential employers that abilities come in all forms and sometimes you have to look past the obvious,” Stevens said.
Bernstein’s election to the Michigan Supreme Court will be his first time being a judge. He said his experience practicing law has served him well in preparing for him for Michigan’s highest court.
“I’ve learned from my litigation that the insertion of a word, the insertion of a phrase, or the removal of a word or a paragraph — every word, sentence and phrase that is included in a Supreme Court decision has a tremendous significance and impact,” he said.
Bernstein’s visual impairment won’t mean any additional cost to Michigan taxpayers. He currently has a person who reads legal opinions, case law and research documents to him. It’s expected that the cost of a reader for his time on the Michigan Supreme Court would come out of his already-allotted judicial budget.
For public legal documents, the ADA requires the blind be provided with a qualified reader; information in large print (Braille) or electronically for use with a computer screen-reading program or an audio recording of printed information.
Bernstein’s plan is to adapt the processes he’s put into place in his law office to the justice’s chambers.
In order to effectively argue cases in court, Bernstein would commit to memory anywhere from 30 to 40 cases that were vital to his case. He’d also memorize a number of cases that were vital to his opponents cases, so he’d be prepared to argue against those cases. He expects to do the same when he takes office on Jan. 1, 2015.
“I can’t do the things I’ve been able to do without absolutely fierce organization,” he said.
Since his election last week, there hasn’t been any time for Bernstein to relax. He’s begun the process of winding down his current cases and started hiring one senior clerk, three other clerks and a court administrator. Interviews for positions are scheduled for next week.
“I haven’t rested in six months and I don’t plan to rest in the next couple of months, because there’s a tremendous amount of work that has to be done,” he said.
Despite the constant work, Bernstein said he’s thrilled at the opportunity to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court.
He said he valued the sense of trust Michigan’s voters put in him and he promised to reward that trust when he’s in office.
“When somebody votes for you, they’re expressing their trust,” he said. “When someone gives you their trust you have to focus every day on honoring that trust. … My focus is going to be on honoring that trust every single day.”
Kyle Feldscher is the Capitol education and MSU reporter for MLive Media Group. Read more stories here.