Blind judge to join Michigan Supreme Court

Richard Bernstein, who has been blind since birth, began memorizing the key points of 10 upcoming cases, as soon as he was elected to Michigan's highest court in November.

Paul Sancya
In this Sept. 16, 2014 photo, Richard Bernstein, Democratic candidate for Michigan Supreme Court, campaigns in Warren, Mich. Since winning election in November, the 41-year-old Bernstein, who is blind, has been listening to an assistant who reads legal briefs aloud. Bernstein then memorizes the key points in cases that will be argued Jan. 13.

Richard Bernstein officially joins the Michigan Supreme Court in a few days. But he's been working off the clock since November, preparing for 10 cases in an extraordinary way — memorizing the key points of every brief read to him by an aide.

Bernstein, 41, has been blind since birth. After winning the election, an assistant at his family's Detroit-area law firm began reading briefs to him for mid-January arguments, including a medical marijuana case and a labor dispute covering thousands of state employees.

"It would be much easier if I could read and write like everyone else, but that's not how I was created," Bernstein said. "No question, it requires a lot more work, but the flip side is it requires you to operate at the highest level of preparedness. ... This is what I've done my entire life. This goes all the way back to grade school for me."

Michigan has never had a blind judge on its highest court, and few other states have. In Missouri, Justice Richard Teitelman has been legally blind since age 13. Judge David Tatel, who is blind, sits on a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

"Every new justice has to make a transition from whatever life he or she had before," Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. said. "His will be different than others, but he's extraordinarily successful and very driven. You don't enter Ironman competitions without having a steel backbone."

Indeed, Bernstein's remarkable background undoubtedly appealed to voters. He has run more than 15 marathons, and in 2008 completed a triathlon by riding a bike 112 miles, running 26.2 miles and swimming 2.4 miles with the help of guides. In 2012, he made headlines in New York City after being struck by a speeding bicyclist while running in Central Park, a collision that put him in a hospital for weeks.

Bernstein is widely known in southeastern Michigan because his family's personal-injury law firm regularly advertises on TV. He spent more than $1.8 million of his own money to campaign for the state Supreme Court. His slogan? "Blind Justice."

As one of only two Democrats on the seven-member court, Bernstein is unlikely to crack the court's conservative sway. But he's still expected to make a difference.

"His own experience and background is different than anyone else's at the conference table," said Justice Bridget McCormack, who was a law professor before being elected in 2012. "Richard knows a whole lot about disability law the rest of us don't. We don't get a lot of those cases. Who knows how it will be useful?"

Bernstein will be sworn into office on New Year's Day. Timothy MacLean, his assistant for three years, has been reading briefs aloud to prepare him for the court's first batch on oral arguments on Jan. 13.

"We do use technology but technology can only take you so far," Bernstein said. "I internalize the cases word for word, pretty much commit them primarily by memory. I'm asking the reader to pinpoint certain things, read footnotes, look at the legislative record."

Hearing arguments and writing opinions is only part of a Supreme Court justice's job. They meet weekly to decide whether to accept or reject appeals in more than 2,000 cases a year. Because he's blind, Bernstein will be having many conversations with his law clerks instead of communicating through email or long memos.

"My chambers will be unique," he said. "Not many clerks will have as much interaction with a justice as mine will."

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