Richard Bernstein sworn in as Michigan’s first blind Supreme Court justice
The 41-year-old disability rights attorney and Birmingham resident said he’s spent six weeks catching up on the 10 cases scheduled for oral arguments in January and will start work at 9 a.m. Friday.
Bernstein said after the ceremony that he hopes his election to an 8-year term on the High Court might encourage employers to consider hiring applicants with a disability.
Advertisement“Disabled people know what their capabilities are. They just need to be given a chance,” Bernstein said. “Companies and employers, with modest accommodations, can bring disabled people onto their staff and they can do great things.”
Jerry Wolffe, the writer-in-residence and disability rights advocate at the nonprofit Macomb Oakland Regional Center, has known Bernstein for 15 years. Wolffe writes The Oakland Press’ “Voices of Disability” column
“Richard will protect the rights and advance the cause of those with a disability by being on the court,” Wolffe said. “Truly, in his case, justice is blind.”
Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and other state officeholders were sworn in during the inauguration, with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan serving as master of ceremonies.
“We can do incredible things when we do them together,” Snyder told a crowd of more than 500 supporters in his inaugural address, pointing to Detroit’s recent emergence from bankruptcy as an example. “Let’s keep that spirit going. Let’s show how we can do these special things.”
Bernstein and colleagues Justice Brian Zahra and Justice David Viviano were sworn in by Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr.
Bernstein and incumbent Zahra won eight-year terms Nov. 4, while incumbent Viviano was elected to a partial term ending in 2017.
They’ll join Justice Stephen Markman, Justice Mary Beth Kelly and Justice Bridget McCormack when the court begins hearing oral arguments later this month.
“Our new colleague, Justice Bernstein, brings incredible energy and enthusiasm to the court,” Young said in a statement. “We are all ready to work together to build on a successful record of driving change to improve service to the public.”
A full-time reader on staff will work with Bernstein on memorizing briefs, court filings, Constitutional interpretation and other elements of the job.
“(I) have to know the material backward and forward. I don’t have the luxury of notes.”
Bernstein, who has been blind since birth, said he must also learn the physical layout of the Michigan Hall of Justice.
“When you’re blind, you have to be focused, you have to be energetic and you have to be intent,” he said. “It requires an incredibly heightened degree of focus.”
Bernstein’s last day at the Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills, where he established a Public Service Division, was Wednesday. “It’s a transition into an entirely new life,” he said of his move to the other side of the bench.
A graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Bernstein represented the Paralyzed Veterans of America in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice in an action against the University of Michigan to allow for safe access for disabled people when stadium upgrades failed to accommodate disabled visitors.
Other achievements during his law career included partnering with the Department of Justice to force Detroit to fix broken wheelchair lifts on its buses and a recent settlement against Delta Airlines and Detroit Metro Airport that gained accessibility for disabled fliers.
Bernstein said his mission now is to recognize the responsibility that comes with his judgeship and honor the voters by doing an “outstanding” job.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about trust.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.