Justice Bernstein gives inspiring speech to Grand Rapids legal community



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is hard to find the words to describe  Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, because many of his traits can be perceived as contradictory.

He radiates an air of innocence, but was an astute and savvy advocate during his time as  practicing lawyer; he talks in simple, direct words but is capable of taking some surprising, highly sophisticated turns in his language; he is gentle and kind but at the same time ambitious and driven on behalf of the values in which he so strongly believes.

The Grand Rapids legal community had a glimpse into his complex character last Thursday when the Social Interaction Committee of the Grand Rapids Bar Association invited Justice Bernstein to speak.

As GRBA President Pat Geary noted, addressing the large crowd at the University Club, “One of our goals at the Grand Rapids Bar is to allow you the opportunity to hear from others in the legal community, such as Justice Bernstein.”

Geary introduced Angel Duff, the Alticor attorney who chairs the GRBA Social Interaction Committee, and she in turn introduced Justice Bernstein.

Bernstein is a name well-known to many in Michigan. Richard Bernstein was born into a family of lawyers — the well-known attorney Sam Bernstein is his father, and both his sister and his brother worked alongside the future justice at The Sam Bernstein Law Office in Farmington Hills.

Justice Bernstein himself has been legally blind since birth, suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder. At the same time, he was gifted with a prodigious memory, which became a huge factor in his graduating summa cum laude from the University of Michigan (where he also was Phi Beta Kappa and president of the study body at the College of Literature, Arts and Sciences) and eventually receiving his Juris Doctorate from Northwestern University School of Law.

Getting in to law school for Bernstein entailed a bit of tenacity, requiring that he argue against the “visual bias” of the Law School Admission Test.

During the question and answer period following his presentation, Justice Bernstein said, “One day you can invite me back and we can have an entire conversation about the LSAT.”

In order to complete his studies at Northwestern, Justice Bernstein memorized all the materials for class. He declined to use Braille because “one page of a textbook equals 70 pages of Braille,” so he had people read to him and became adept at committing the requisite information to memory.

Once he became a practicing lawyer, Bernstein followed his heart and advocated strongly for people with disabilities.

Cases for which he is well-known include an action in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring the City of Detroit to fix the wheelchair lifts on its buses; a successful suit against the University of Michigan, representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America, for failing to accommodate spectators with disabilities in its stadium renovation (which caused the university to add more accessible seating, parking, rest rooms and concessions); a case against Oakland County because plans for installation of roundabouts did not allow for people with disabilities to cross the road safely, which resulted in the county adding safety equipment; and a settlement with Delta Airlines and Detroit Metro Airport allowing greater access for disabled fliers.

Having nearly reached the ripe old age of 40, Bernstein ran for the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014, and won the seat formerly held by Justice Michael Cavanagh.

Duff added in her introduction that he has won innumerable awards, and commented, “It was really his passion for justice that led to his success in the private sector.”

The justice gave Duff a hug as he took the podium and delivered his inspiring message, the main theme of which is that struggle and working to overcome life’s challenges are at the core of being alive, and shape the meaning we derive from life.

“Our lives are like a great novel,” Justice Bernstein said Thursday. “There will always be chapters within this story, and some of those chapters will be of setback, struggle and pain. It’s only in those chapters that you can find the joy and resilience and strength that will ultimately bring success.”

He said that he had been very disappointed when he asked a committee that nominated federal judicial candidates about what makes a good judge. They responded that academic success and indications of high intelligence were what they looked for, but Bernstein responded that that left out “life experience,” and added, “I think life experience really plays the most critical role in the kind of judge a person becomes.”

Justice Bernstein is also a dedicated runner, but as he was in New York City’s Central Park in August of 2012 preparing to run his eighteenth marathon, he was struck from behind by an out-of-control bicyclist, causing a long hospitalization at Mt. Sinai facing excruciating pain.

He explained that the trauma nurses there told him that for the most part it appeared that a person who was kind and empathetic before such a catastrophic event remained so and had an easier time of recovery than “those who don’t know struggle.”

He added, “An incredible man came to my bedside at just the right moment and just the right time. He helped me to realize that the one great power that we as humans have is how we choose to react to the lives that we have been given.

“An easy life does not always correspond to a good one. It’s through that struggle and through that hardship that you see why you were created, what you were sent here to do,” he continued. “You come to realize that as you go through life, when there’s struggle you seem to always have what you truly need when you truly need it.”

Bernstein said he felt that it was important for attorneys and judges to recognize the struggles their clients have experienced, and give voice to those clients, treating everyone with respect.
In response to a question after his presentation, Justice Bernstein replied that in order to be a good justice, he has had to spend hours and hours memorizing all the cases until “I have it down cold.”

“It’s like being in constant law school,” the justice said to audience laughter.

 He added that what makes it all worthwhile is the collegiality of the court. He has formed friendships with justices whose political leanings he does not share, but adds that Chief Justice Robert Young really set the tone.

“The responsibility for accommodations and all of that fell to the Chief,” Justice Bernstein explains. “But he was genuinely enthusiastic about having a blind person on the court; he saw it as a challenge, and I just felt welcome right off the bat.”