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Blind Judge Makes History, Joins Michigan’s Supreme Court

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.

 

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