Painful struggles create ‘everlasting change’

Michigan+Supreme+Court+Justice+Richard+Bernstein+talks+overcoming+challenges+and+dealing+with+blindness+as+a+judge+to+a+group+of+students%2C+faculty+and+community+members+during+his+visit+to+NMU+last+Thursday.+Photo+by+Jackie+Jahfetson+

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein talks overcoming challenges and dealing with blindness as a judge to a group of students, faculty and community members during his visit to NMU last Thursday. Photo by Jackie Jahfetson

Jackie Jahfetson

One morning, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein received a phone call from a young mother, who was yearning to understand why out of all the people in the world, God chose her to have a son with severe special needs. What kind of life could a newborn with disabilities have? Would he make any friends? Could he live independently? Would he ever live an “ordinary life,” the mother wondered.

Born blind and elected as the first blind justice back in 2014, Bernstein, out of all people, understood this young mother’s frustrations and concerns.

“From this day forward, there will be nothing about your life and your family’s life that will ever be ordinary again. You simply have to believe that you were sent here, that your child was sent here not to simply be ordinary, but to be nothing less than extraordinary,” Bernstein recalled saying to the mother.

With a passionate and visionary tone, Bernstein spoke to a crowd of students, faculty and community members last Thursday in room 2906 of Weston Hall and explained how individual experiences are what set you apart from others and life’s struggles define who you are.

“You are given these experiences for a reason. The key is to use the experiences you’re given—the challenge, the struggle, the hardship, the difficulties you face—to make a better life for those around you. It is through the experiences you have that you’re able to understand, connect, emphasize and relate,” Bernstein said. “It is only through challenge, hardship and struggle that you can truly understand what your role is, what your mission is [and] how that can be used and enhanced to make life better for countless numbers of people.”

Bernstein began his 8-year term in January 2015 and prior to being elected, he worked as an attorney for The Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Completing his undergrad at the University of Michigan (UM) and then earning his juris doctorate from Northwestern University School of Law, Bernstein worked on a number of cases, particularly cases that protect disabled people’s rights. When UM’s football stadium failed to accommodate and represent disabled visitors, the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America filed a lawsuit on April 17, 2007 and Bernstein worked in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice to allow for safe access for disabled individuals. The case helped establish guidelines for all commercial facilities across the nation.

As a judge, Bernstein said the most vital quality political scientists can possess is knowing how to use those hardships to make other people’s lives better.

“An easy life does not always correspond to a good one,” Bernstein said.

Every Wednesday in Lansing, Bernstein and his fellow justices review around 26 cases in what is called a “Justices’ Conference.” The Supreme Court selects less than 10% of all cases, and it only gets involved if there’s an issue with law. The type of cases the court hears are not only intense, but people’s lives are on the line, he said.

Without the ability to oversee, for instance a crime scene in a criminal case, Bernstein relies on memorizing the 26 cases and all relative cases. Due to the nation’s common law system, a justice must derive support from previous judicial decisions to further back their argument for a case. Working seven days a week and 15-hour days, Bernstein said he doesn’t have the time to read a case using Braille because one textbook page translates into 65 Braille pages. So Bernstein and his team of law clerks have to work tirelessly memorizing key facts of cases to prepare for each conference session because case one is just as important as case 26, he added.

“You don’t do a job like this unless you’re able to appreciate and understand the consequences of you to effectively do business,” he said.

Sometimes life will not go the way people expect it to, and you have to be ready to adapt to whatever current that might come flowing your way, Bernstein continued. For Bernstein, athletics has been a coping mechanism. Overall, he completed 22 marathons and the Ironman Triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Ironman is known as one of the most difficult one-day competitions in the world, testing both strength and endurance with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride and finishing with a 26.22-mile run. Bernstein was the only disabled competitor in 2008.

With only a rope around his waist attached to two guides swimming beside him, Bernstein had to rely on his two months of training to persevere and deal with other swimmers kicking and splashing 55 degree water in his face. Without any sense of direction or communication, Bernstein said it was the struggle that kept him going.

“You come to realize at a certain point that when you’re scared, when you’re in pain and when the outcome is uncertain, that’s when miracles truely happen. You come to realize that even though your body is mortal, it is the spirit that is all powerful,” he said.

Bernstein’s love for athletics would eventually come to a dramatic halt on Aug. 13, 2012, in Central Park in NYC when a cyclist traveling at a speed of 35 mph lost control of his bike and veered into the pedestrian lane, striking Bernstein from behind. He suffered a broken hip and pelvis and was hospitalized for 10 weeks.

During the recovery process, Bernstein learned to appreciate the little things, like using a walker, but the accident took a huge toll on his daily life and he said he hasn’t fully recovered.

“I was a 17-time marathoner. I was an Iron Man,” Bernstein said, pausing for a moment. “I had to learn how to walk again. But you find a way to celebrate every victory.”

Pain will never go away and you will never get over it, Bernstein noted, but you have to find peace to get on with it.

“It is those who will do what is hard that will achieve no less than what is truly great,” he added.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what you believe and the mission you’re on to effectively create “real, profound, everlasting change,” Bernstein said. Being a good judge doesn’t reflect on where you go to school or how well you did on the LSAT, he said, adding, it’s about passion and life experiences that makes it all worth it.