Richard Bernstein is the first blind Supreme Court Justice in Michigan. In his conversation with Jay, Richard talks about his pro-bono legal work towards improving the lives of people with disabilities, the 24 marathons he ran – and the surprising and destructive effect the COVID pandemic had on his life.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice
Richard Bernstein (00:01):
I am willing to venture that if I had gone in front of a committee, a merit selection committee, they would have said, oh my goodness, that is so inspirational. That this person is blind and they want to be a Supreme Court justice, and I’m so inspired. But as soon as you leave the room and the door is closed, I am willing to bet that the conversation would take a totally different tone. And it would be that of, it’s just not going to work. It’s just going to make it too challenging and too difficult for the Court to have to sustain that.
Speaker 3 (00:36):
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:46):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive. A podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice. Tireless, committed, dedicated. These are just some of the adjectives used by journalists and biographers to describe this episode’s guest’s long-time fight for the rights of people with disabilities. Richard Bernstein is a justice at the Michigan Supreme Court. As a lawyer, he has fought for and won many cases against various organizations and service providers on behalf of citizens with disabilities. Many of them pro bono. But he is also a triathlete and an 18-times marathon runner. Oh, and he’s also legally blind since birth. Justice Bernstein, welcome to my podcast on inclusive. Before we dive into your legal work, please describe to our audience your career path thus far, and how you came to be a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Richard Bernstein (01:52):
Well, first off, Jay, I love your podcast and I love your foundation, and I love what you do. You have enhanced so many people’s lives and had such a profound impact that I’m delighted to be a part of this. Your question is, how did you get to become a Supreme Court justice for the state of Michigan? And it’s a really interesting question because in Michigan, we elect our justices. We’re not appointed. And the reason I say quickly about the distinction between being elected versus being appointed is that if it was an appointment process, I am willing to venture that if I had gone in front of a committee, a merit selection committee, they would have said, oh my goodness, that is so inspirational that this person is blind and they want to be a Supreme Court justice, and I’m so inspired.
Richard Bernstein (02:42):
But as soon as you leave the room and the door is closed, I am willing to bet that the conversation would take a totally different tone. And it would be that of, wow, as incredibly exciting as this is and as inspired as this is, it’s just not going to work. We don’t want to go with someone who has a disability because it’s just going to make it too challenging and too difficult for the Court to have to sustain that. And I think Jay, when you ask about the career path, the reasons that I love my state is because when you take the message to the people, and you allow for the 11 million people who live in the great state of Michigan to decide who is going to represent them on the state’s highest court, they saw blindness as an advantage because they came to realize as voters that you understood struggle, that you understood hardship, that you understood difficulty.
Richard Bernstein (03:37):
And as a result of that understanding, you were able to empathize and understand and relate to the challenges and to the hardships and to the difficulties that real people have to face and have to contend with each and every day. I insisted that my campaign slogan be Blind Justice. That was my slogan. It’s hokey, it’s silly, but that was the whole idea. The fact that I was putting it out there and emphasizing blindness and doing it in a fun way, I made it the kind of thing where you felt comfortable asking the questions that I needed people to ask. I needed labor and farmers and truck drivers and all different people across the state to ask the questions that they needed to ask, which is, how can you be a judge? How can you keep up with the materials? How can you understand a crime scene?
Richard Bernstein (04:30):
How can you see people’s facial expressions? People are going to have genuine interest in how you can perform your duties as a Supreme Court justice. But I think Jay, the key to it is, as long as you do it in a fun way, as long as you make people feel comfortable and can just have a conversation with you and ask you the questions that they need to have asked, then what usually happens is, the people that are doubters because they assume that this is something that you’re not going to be able to do, once you assuage all of their concerns, will become your most ferocious supporters. Because they felt that it applied to them, and they felt that having someone who’s blind in this position who can understand and identify hardship and struggle would mean that you could appreciate their issues and their concerns, and represent what they feel is important.
Jay Ruderman (05:27):
You were involved in many notable legal cases as an attorney before you became a Supreme Court justice in Michigan. So let’s go all the way back to 2004. And a federal lawsuit that you were involved in against the Detroit Department of Transportation for failure to serve people with disabilities. Can you talk a little bit about this case and specifically why proper transportation is so vital for people with disabilities?
Richard Bernstein (05:58):
Right. Well, I’m so glad you ask that Jay, because this was a really … This was my first big case, but it was without a doubt unbelievably difficult. What was happening in Detroit was the buses were operating without workable wheelchair lifts. And the estimate was that about 60% … Think about that Jay, 60% of the fleet didn’t have workable lifts. And the reason I took on this case, I just remember kind of how this all happened. I was at a meeting once, and it was a meeting of people with disabilities. And I couldn’t understand why nobody was there. I showed up at this meeting and I don’t know, maybe two other people were there, but it was supposed to be a large meeting. And I asked the organizer, I said, well, where is everybody? Why isn’t anybody at this meeting? Why aren’t people here? And they said, oh, well, because the buses don’t have workable wheelchair lifts.
Richard Bernstein (06:53):
So I’m sure they’re trying to get here, but they can’t. And then I started to realize that, oh my God, you had veterans that basically were in many situations not leaving their homes during the winter in Detroit because they were too worried that if they started a journey and got stuck in a transfer that the bus would come along that wouldn’t have a wheelchair lift. They would wind up spending entire evenings in bus shelters. At that time there was a mayor, his name was Kwame Kilpatrick. And I remember going and talking to his people and just saying, look, we’ve got to do something to help folks with disabilities with special needs. You can’t leave them stranded on the streets. This is crazy. And their response, which was a typical response was … And I’m just going to be candid.
Richard Bernstein (07:55):
Their response was, they didn’t care. And the reason they didn’t care is, why does government care? Why do people act? It’s because either A, politics or money, right? It’s going to be one of those two. And if you have people that are disenfranchised who aren’t really part of the political process, they’re not going to move huge numbers of voters, and then they don’t have any money, why would you listen to them? And that was what the mayor’s position was. These people aren’t going to be able to do anything to me. They’re not really relevant. And they’re not going to be very impactful in terms of his administration. So he didn’t care. He literally didn’t care. So I sued him, and I put it into federal court. And what made it so hard was it got so personal between me and the mayor.
Richard Bernstein (08:39):
It was just so unnecessary. He would come and have press conferences. And he would say to people in Detroit, we here in Detroit, we are not going to allow Richard Bernstein from the town of Birmingham to come into our city and to come in to Detroit, Michigan and tell us how to run our city. And he would say, we got to rise up against people like Mr. Bernstein. He’d say, I’m sorry that many of you are going to lose your jobs, but you know what, if you’re angry, you need to go and take it out on Mr. Bernstein out in Birmingham, Michigan. You know what ultimately happened? Nobody in Detroit bought it. Nobody signed on to his rhetoric. No one liked it. In fact, the NAACP and all the major ministers and community leaders were infuriated by his conduct.
Richard Bernstein (09:34):
And basically came out against the mayor and said not only what he was doing was inappropriate, but they fully support what I was doing because I was trying to make things better for the residents and the community members of Detroit. And it went on for a while. But ultimately what happened was that in the end, the Department of Justice intervened and brought in federal oversight. And now what’s great about the city of Detroit is the buses work beautifully. I can’t say they’re perfect because nothing is going to be perfect, but you don’t have these issues. They bought all new buses. They retrained the drivers. Ridership according to the Detroit Free Press went up by 20% because once they made it accessible that everyone could use it, basically the ridership increased dramatically to the point where the ridership ultimately allowed for them to cover any of the related expenses that came with the new equipment and the new training.
Richard Bernstein (10:29):
And now people don’t stay in their houses. They go out. They’re out and about, they’re doing things. They’re going to work. It’s not just going to the doctor. Life is more about not just that. They have work, social engagements, seeing friends, doing things. They’re using public transportation. So lawyers, if you really care about civil rights and you really want to make a difference, you can do this in a proper way.
Jay Ruderman (10:50):
Right. Let me bring you on to 2008 in a lawsuit that you were involved with on behalf of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America against the University of Michigan to make it’s stadium accessible for people in wheelchairs. And this came about after a 226 million renovation for the university that failed to have enough seats for people with disabilities.
Richard Bernstein (11:20):
So Jay, the thing that arises out of that, that I think is significant is the question and the discussion about diversity. And what I found at the University of Michigan with that case was that when they discussed the concept of diversity, they did not deliberately include people with disabilities in that discussion. And I think Jay, what happened in that case was a blatant example of it, right? The University of Michigan had spent well over $200 million to renovate the stadium, and this wasn’t an accident. They deliberately weren’t going to make the stadium accessible. And in fact, the university was going so far as to I would say, do it in a very callous manner. They knew that under the ADA, there was a question about what constitutes a repair versus what constitutes an alteration. If you take an existing structure and you repair it, you don’t have to bring it to compliance.
Richard Bernstein (12:20):
If you alter it, you do. And the university deliberately did this. The university would deliberately basically do separate little mini projects. They would say, okay well, we’re fixing the bleachers. We’re putting in new cement. We’re putting in new bathrooms. We’re putting in new concession. But they would have the regents vote on it separately so that they could deliberately state that these were separate repairs, right? That they were just basically a conglomeration of repairs. And ultimately what they were doing … Think about this. The University of Michigan, this bastion of progressive ideology is basically literally putting the entire ADA at risk. And the reason Jay that that was the case was because if the university had been successful in what it was trying to do, what would have happened is that any commercial facility would have simply said, we are making repairs to our existing structure.
Richard Bernstein (13:17):
We’re not altering it. So we’re just putting in new lights, new flooring, new glass, new concession stands, new whatever. And they’d just do it separately and say, well no, no, these are just mini repairs. They’re not alterations, they’re just mini repairs. So that would have been devastating to basically all commercial facilities, because people with disabilities literally would not have had access to commercial facilities. That’s why I had to sue my own university was because what they were doing was going to be so detrimental to the overall lives of the people that we care so much about to allow for them to go to malls and to go to restaurants and to go to hotels and to do any kind of commercial activity. And then ultimately the department of justice also intervened on that case because of the federal conceptual notion of it was so intensive that this required federal intervention as well. That actually then resulted in this establishing all the guidelines and precedence for any commercial facility in the United States as it pertains to the issue of alteration versus repair. So, that was established by this case.
Jay Ruderman (14:26):
So you started out your career as an attorney in a small practice, but you were engaged in many cases as taking on a lot of pro bono cases. Cases that you were not making money off of. Can you tell us a little bit about that process, about how someone who hangs out a shingle and needs to support the firm was able to go and take on so many pro bono cases?
Richard Bernstein (15:00):
Well, this is going to sound unusual, but it goes back to kind of my spiritual belief system. When I was in law school, I was struggling to survive. And I was struggling to literally stay in law school. Each day was a hardship. And there were days that I didn’t think I was going to make it. There were days I didn’t think I was going to get through it. Especially during those cold Chicago winters. And what happened was it was a cold February night, and I know this will sound crazy, but I made a promise. I said, [inaudible 00:15:34] look, if you give me the chance to become a lawyer, this is my lifelong dream. This is the thing I want more than anything else. But if you give me this opportunity, I promise that I will use it to do something meaningful, and that I will use it to do something good. But I need you to help me to get through this.
Richard Bernstein (15:56):
And if you could just simply allow me to graduate, I will dedicate my professional career to representing people with disabilities and special needs who otherwise don’t have access to our judicial system. And so ultimately, miraculously, I actually did graduate from law school, which was miraculous. Even more miraculously, I passed the bar, which was even far more miraculous. And then I went back to my family’s law firm and I said, look, I know you’re going to think this is crazy, but a promise is a promise. And thankfully my family was supportive, and we started our law firm’s public services division.
Richard Bernstein (16:33):
We created a public services division. We started the public services division and basically represented folks who otherwise simply didn’t have access to the judicial system. And a lot of it is when you get involved in these kinds of things, a lot of it is that you don’t have to take on the University of Michigan. You don’t have to take on the city of Detroit. You don’t have to take on some massive entity that’s going to crush you. What you have to do is find an injustice, or help a person in some way. And just be willing to take on a case you otherwise wouldn’t have taken, or get involved with something that you otherwise wouldn’t have done. And you can make all the difference in the world.
Jay Ruderman (17:22):
I’m going to jump to sports. You’re a marathoner.
Richard Bernstein (17:25):
Jay Ruderman (17:26):
And tell us about your first marathon. How did you decide to run a marathon with everything going on in your life and how busy it is, tell me the role that marathoning plays in your life.
Richard Bernstein (17:40):
So Jay, athletics is everything to me. The reason is, is that growing up as a blind kid, you don’t have a lot of self-confidence. I’m speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for others. I’m just speaking for me. And I had a huge issue with confidence, huge issue. I was one of those awkward people who just couldn’t figure out where to fit in. And what I used to do is I’d go to gym and I couldn’t participate. I couldn’t do anything. So they would just put me on the sideline and I would just sit there. And how do you think you think of yourself? Do you think you’re cool? Do you think you’re a leader? Do you think you’re someone that people look up to? No. Who are the leaders? It’s always the athletes.
Richard Bernstein (18:24):
Those are the people that get the respect and the admiration. It’s always the athletes. And then I joined a program called Achilles, a guy named Dick Traum, amazing person. He called me and he said, you know Richard, I was introduced to you by some folks. And I think you should join Achilles. And Achilles is dedicated to people like myself who have severe disabilities. And the idea is that you should be able to participate in athletics. And it’s not about winning or losing. It’s not about … But it’s doing endurance competitions. It’s about doing things that are hard. It’s about doing things that are painful. It’s about doing things that have a lot of struggle, have a lot of difficulty. It’s about doing things that are just intense, right? So Dick said, I want you to become a part of Achilles. I remember I joined and I was like, oh my God, what is this?
Richard Bernstein (19:09):
This is insane. I’d never run before, I didn’t do any athletic before. And they gave me a team of guides and we went running in the park, and they would give directional cues. Hard right, soft right, hard left, soft left. And I’d have a tether and I’d hold one side of the tether, the guide would hold the other part. You could feel the motion of their body. And honestly Jay, what it taught me was invaluable because we came, I did one mile the first day. And then Dick said, okay, you’re going to be back here and you’ll do another. We’re going to come back and do this again. The next day I did two miles. Then I did three. If Dick Traum had told me that I was going to be an Ironman at my first day of Achilles, I would have left and never come back. But he didn’t say that. He didn’t even tell me I was going to be a marathoner.
Richard Bernstein (19:51):
He just said, let’s do it one mile at a time. And before you know it, I had learned how to run with Achilles. I had learned how to do this. I was up to 10 miles, then 15 miles and then 18 miles on these long runs. I was like the karate kid. We were training without really knowing that we were training. Then finally Dick said to me, he says, you know Rick, I’d like you to do the New York City marathon. I want you to do it. And I did. And then I ran one marathon, then two, then three, then five and 10, then 15, and eventually I got to 24 marathons. And then did a full Ironman, which is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. But the answer to your question about athletics, which is why it is so unbelievably essential for people with disabilities is because after I did a marathon, I started suing everybody.
Richard Bernstein (20:47):
Now what I mean by that is, I had a certain sense of confidence that I now had that I didn’t have before. Because once you can do a marathon, you can literally do anything. It’s that simple. You work through a marathon, nothing else is as difficult. And again, the Ironman is a whole nother kind of extreme level. But the point of a marathon is that once you get through a marathon, you literally will have the strength to get through anything. Suing the city of Detroit isn’t really a big deal because I got through a marathon. So how hard can that be? And it literally affects every decision you make because you come at it with a different level of understanding about yourself and your ability that you never had before. Because athletics gives strength, strength breeds confidence, confidence breeds power, and power breeds results.
Jay Ruderman (21:41):
So I want to bring you to a traumatic incident you had in 2012, when you were severely injured by a speeding cyclist in Central Park in New York City. Can you tell us about that accident and what it did to you, and how you moved on from that accident to again, starting to run after that?
Richard Bernstein (22:04):
I was walking in Central Park. I was in the pedestrian lane and I’ve memorized Central Park. And I’m there so often I’ve memorized the loop. I know the loop cold, so I can walk independently. I don’t need a guide. I can do it on my own. I can just take my cane and go for a walk. And as I was walking, a bicyclist was going, and he was going over 35 miles an hour. He was going really fast. And he veered into the pedestrian lane where I was, and he hit me directly in the back. And it was a catastrophic injury. It was absolutely catastrophic. I was at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital for over 10 weeks. And the thing that was so hard about it Jay was I had to learn how to do everything all over again from the very beginning.
Richard Bernstein (22:53):
And that was so hard. At that point I was an Ironman. I had done 17 marathons and literally I couldn’t use the bathroom. I couldn’t do a single thing for myself. There was not a single thing that I could do on my own. I had to be lifted. I had to be carried. It was just really something. And when I was in the hospital, I had to find a sense of purpose to this. I had to find a sense of mission. I couldn’t just allow this to be some sad thing. I had to find a purpose. I had to find something where I could say, okay, this happened, but it happened for a reason. And I can take that reason and translate it into something meaningful. So I sued the city of New York. I didn’t ask them for any money.
Richard Bernstein (23:43):
I didn’t ask them for a dime or a nickel or a cent. I didn’t ask them for a single thing. I just wanted them to fix the park. And I wanted them to make the park safer and make the park better. I didn’t ask them for a single, nothing. I just wanted the park safer. And God did we fight. It was another fight that I did from my hospital bed. But in the end, the city actually wound up making some great changes to the park. It’s still not perfect, but they took the traffic out. They resurfaced the roads, so now it’s safe to walk on. They’ve put in all new traffic signals. And in fact, the Conservancy is now looking at the idea, hopefully after the pandemic of adding tunnels within the park to get people across the road without having to travel across the busy lanes with the bicyclist.
Jay Ruderman (24:29):
Well Richard, it sounds like you have found a way to take every adversity and make it into a positive. So that’s something to other people can I think gain from, from your experience. I just want to end with you travel a lot. We’re talking now and you’re in Dubai, but you’ve been to Ecuador and Australia and many different countries in Israel. When you go to … Is it difficult for you to get around in foreign countries? And do you find certain countries to be more accommodating for people with disabilities?
Richard Bernstein (25:16):
So the answer is that ultimately … And I’ll just bring in the pandemic. For me, the pandemic has been just devastating. I’m a person that works through things and deals with a lot of things. But when we had the lockdown in Michigan, it was excruciating. It was excruciating because people didn’t take into account that people like me who are blind need food. And when you shut everything down and you shut Uber down, and you tell people that you can’t go out of your house and you can’t do stuff, in my situation, I was living in an apartment building, but that had surges of Corona cases. So people didn’t want to … You couldn’t ask people to come and help you because you didn’t want them to have to be exposed to you or come into your building.
Richard Bernstein (26:10):
And so, I was on my own, because it was understandably because my building had Corona. I will tell you Jay, that it’s almost like you couldn’t have created a worst scenario for people with disabilities than a pandemic. Just to give you an example, I had a hard time getting food. I would try to get food, but the grocery stores would tell you that they would deliver it to you, but it would take a month. It takes a month? What can I do? And then when you made it so that you couldn’t use Uber, what am I supposed to do? And then what they did was all of the restaurants that became takeaway would require you to use apps, but the apps weren’t accessible. So I couldn’t use the apps. So there was a store in Birmingham, and I love this store. And I’ll always be grateful to them. It’s called Beyond Juice.
Richard Bernstein (27:08):
And I went to them and I said, look, I’m having trouble getting food, and I really need your help. I need you to help me figure out a way we can do this. I need to come here in person and give you my credit card and have an in-person transaction. I can’t do this without doing this in-person. And they had to get special permission from the health department. It just became ridiculous. And for one month Jay, I had the same thing every day. I had a salad and a smoothie because that was all I could get for food. And when they were closed on Sunday, I would have people eventually, if someone was going to the grocery store and they were young, they were young enough that they would be willing to take the risk.
Richard Bernstein (27:55):
I’d asked them, can you buy me something that’s non-perishable? I would say, can you buy me peanut butter? So, Mondays to Saturday I would eat the Birmingham salad from Beyond Juice. And then on Sunday, because they were closed, I would eat peanut butter just out of the jar because that was what I would eat was peanut butter. But answering your question about travel and the pandemic is that people who are blind like me need people. We can’t function without people. I can’t do things without people. If I’m crossing a street, someone’s going to come and grab your arm and help you cross the street. The isolation is death for somebody like myself. Then look, I’m just going to say this in a very direct way. Being from Detroit, I had five close friends, five close friends who died from Corona.
Richard Bernstein (28:47):
I share that with Jay because I don’t want people to think that I minimize at all the dangers and the difficulties that Corona presents. I don’t want people to think for a second that I don’t understand, and don’t appreciate, and don’t recognize the severity of Corona. I get it. I understand it. But having said that, and having made that acknowledgement, there has to be a balance. And the balance has to be that there are people that are just being left in the cold. And there are people that are not going to survive this unless society at a certain point, when the vaccine has been distributed to enough people, and we just certain point, this has to end. And what I mean by that is that this has to come to a point where enough people are vaccinated, where we reach a point where the risk of Corona is now balanced with the dangers and hardships that it’s presenting in other facets, which is, I cannot live under the current scenario that is happening.
Richard Bernstein (29:58):
I’m here in the United Arabs Emirates. You ask, where is the best place to go? For me, the absolute best place to be in the Middle East. Not even a question. In the United States, what has wound up happening is that people have now been conditioned to see everybody as a threat. Everyone is now a threat. So for someone like me, when I want to go, I had to, I had to go to CVS to buy some things. And I don’t want to have to bring someone to CVS. I’d like to just go to CVS independently. But Jay, when I go to CVS, I can’t approach someone at CVS. If I walk up to you at CVS and say, hey, can you help me find some toothpaste? Can you help me find the deodorant?
Richard Bernstein (30:46):
Can you let me find some mouthwash? You’re going to flip out. You’re going to … Because we have done a phenomenal job of making people scared to the point where someone like me needs assistance or needs help, that people are going to run from you. They’re going to run. They’re not going to come close to you. You want to cross the street and you need help? No one’s going to come over to help you because they’re going to see you as a threat. They’re going to see you as a danger. They’re not going to want to be close to you because we’re so big on social distancing. And I get it. I understand it. I respect it. But we’ve gone to such an extreme with it that what’s wound up happening is that someone like myself who is trying to cross the street or trying to do anything independently, or coming up on a flight of stairs, people won’t come to you.
Richard Bernstein (31:31):
And I love being in the Middle East. I love the UAE. I love Israel. I love any Middle Eastern country. And the reason why J is because here in the Middle East, people have a balance. And what that means is the Middle East culture is one of warmth. It’s one of kindness. It’s one of just genuine hosting and hospitality. In the Middle East, yes, people, they will wear masks and they will be cognitive. And they will be respectful of the challenges that people are facing. They get it. They understand it.
Richard Bernstein (32:07):
But in the Middle East, people do not do social distancing. They just don’t do it. No matter what you tell them, no matter how hard you want them to do it, they’re not going to do it. So even with the Corona here in the Middle East, if somebody sees you struggling, they will run to you and they will come to you. They will assist you. They will do anything for you. So the Middle East, the instinctive nature of Middle Eastern people to be of assistance is so ingrained that it usurps the social distancing concepts and confines that have kind of taken over the United States.
Jay Ruderman (32:46):
Richard, it’s been such a pleasure to speak with you. You’re a good friend. We’ve known each other for a while. It’s a powerful message that you’ve given us throughout the podcast. But especially in the end about Corona and the impact on you and where you fear feel most safe. I don’t know if higher office is in your future, but if it is, I think you have a great chance of success. So I want to really thank you for your time. This has been a great discussion. And wish you much health and safety in the coming months.
Richard Bernstein (33:24):
Jay, thank you so much. And thanks to your engineers and your team that put this all together. And I look forward to talking to you again soon. So you guys stay safe and God bless.
Speaker 3 (33:39):
All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more go to Rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.