After winning a seat in November, Richard Bernstein has become the first-ever blind judge in the Michigan Supreme Court.
Bernstein, 41, has been blind since birth. By Jan. 1, he will be sworn into office. While he holds the distinction of being the first blind judge in Michigan's High Court, he is not the first in the U.S.
Bernstein is already preparing to take charge in office and has been busy memorizing briefs for 10 cases since November. His aide Timothy MacLean reads out all the aspects of the case and repeats the briefings, including the footnotes. Bernstein then commits all the pivotal points in each case to memory. The cases scheduled for mid-January include a medical marijuana case and a labor dispute that covers several state employees.
"It would be much easier if I could read and write like everyone else, but that's not how I was created," noted Bernstein. "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."
Lauded as "very driven" and "extraordinarily successful" by his colleagues, Bernstein reveals that, while he does use technology to assist him, it can be limiting. He internalizes the briefs thoroughly and memorizes them, even looking at legislatives and footnotes.
Bernstein may have spent $1.8 million of his own money to campaign, but his popularity among voters is indisputable. The judge with "Blind Justice" for his slogan has over 15 marathons to his credit; he even finished a triathlon in 2008 with the assistance of guides, riding a bike for 112 miles, swimming 2.4 miles, and running 26.2 miles.
In the seven-member court, Bernstein is one of two Democrats. While it is not expected that he will bring about a departure from the conservative methodology that is synonymous with the court, he will make a huge difference owing to his background. His knowledge on disability law will be an advantage as it may come in handy.
While listening to arguments and writing down opinions are an aspect of the job, the judges also meet every week to decide whether an appeal will be rejected or accepted. Since Bernstein is blind, most of his conversations will be with the law clerks instead of him communicating via memo or email.
"My chambers will be unique," said Bernstein. "Not many clerks will have as much interaction with a justice as mine will."