By AJ Trager
MICHIGAN – Candidate for the open seat on the Michigan Supreme Court, Richard Bernstein, recently sat down with BTL. The pro bono lawyer is known for his work with disability cases. He set up the Public Service Division of his family’s law firm and handles cases that “no one else will take.”
Bernstein runs long marathons and after living in New York for a time, fell in Central Park as a result of a collision involving a cyclist. He has since sued the city of New York, seeking to make Central Park more accessible and safer for the disabled community. Two years later, he is running marathons again, but the effect the hospitalization and trauma has had on his body is still a constant ache.
“It’s best to keep pushing the body forward and not to give in to the pain. The body will freeze up and make it difficult to do other things. It’s a lot of sheer determination. You just have to want it, and you have to find the strength to just push past it. Because otherwise, what is your choice?” Bernstein asked.
He carries a positive attitude and promotes the philosophy of adapting to one’s surroundings.
“I’ve been blind my whole life, never really had usable vision. And this is how I approach life and work through things. When you are born without useable vision, you have a different framework and a different perspective of the world that comes with it,” Bernstein said.
His favorite case involves the University of Michigan, where he represented the Paralyzed Veterans of America in an inclusion case. The fundamentally important part of the case for Bernstein was the isolation of the disabled community in able-bodied spaces.
“Under federal law, if you have any kind of facility that houses dolphins, it is against code to allow for a dolphin to exist by itself. They are social creatures, like humans, and to leave it by itself is seen as a very cruel thing for the animal. And then you look at what we do to people. And I think the worst thing that you can ever do to anybody is say to them, ‘You aren’t welcome and you aren’t going to be included in any event or any activity, because of who you are.’ And candidly, that is what U of M was doing. That is why it was a really hurtful case,” Bernstein said. “Anytime that you exclude people for nothing that they did, but on the basis of exclusion, I think that is the most hurtful thing you can do to people.”
Bernstein has yet to argue for an LGBT rights case; not because he has no interest, but because he has not been approached. Were an inclusion case for LGBT rights to come his way, Bernstein said he would “definitely take the case.”
As an ally, Bernstein sees issues for the blind and LGBT issues as analogous and asks a fundamental question about integrity and acceptance of all walks of life.
“At the end of the day, what is it that people really want? They want independence, they want to be included, they want to live their lives the way they want to live their lives and they don’t want to be judged. At a certain point, we all run into the same kinds of things,” Bernstein said.
“There are self-appointed experts who tend to think that they know what is best for everybody. We all have our own stories, and we all have our own experiences, and it really is what makes us who we are. If you talk to a disabled person, or anyone in the circumstances that our communities are in, they’ll say people pre-judge us. We have to work harder to basically do basic things. I have found that to be the case with nearly everything I have done. And I am willing to bet that your constituency goes through the same thing.”
Blind justice is the process of being blind towards special interests, political ideologies and partisan politics, and Bernstein incorporates that into fighting for issues close to home. Social change does not come easy. Bernstein sees that process as a slow pendulum that eventually starts to swing, and when it gains momentum, remarkable things start to happen.
So why is his position as a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court so important? Because in a room of only seven people that determine the highest cases in the state, it is critical to have people who do not think the same and have different life experiences.
“In the last 15 years I have seen first hand how the law has tremendous power to enhance and change people’s lives for the better,” Bernstein said. “There are a lot of folks out there that, when they go into the courts, they feel that their case has been pre-determined. People want to know that the judges they elect are fair and do have life experiences.”