Justice Bernstein brings a perspective of inclusion to court

Richard Bernstein believes one of the most important attributes he brings to his role as a justice on Michigan’s highest court is the perspective of someone navigating life with a disability. 

There’s a power in having a lived experience that is different from the other justices. Ultimately, a diversity of opinion is key to forming legal opinions that are more inclusive of people’s situations.

“The whole idea of inclusion is the notion that when someone brings up a topic or brings up a concept, others can look at it and say, ‘I simply never realized that.’ That is the power of experience,” Bernstein says. 

One of his motivations for running for the state’s highest court, he said, was that so often “judges didn't really understand or appreciate the struggle, or the hardship, the challenges that people with disabilities had to face, or contend with, or deal with. And now, when we have a disabled person in that perspective, you're able to guide the courts in such a manner to make sure that appreciation, that understanding is fulfilled and understood, and that voice is ultimately heard and made clear.” 

Focus on inclusion 

Bernstein recently made these comments as a presenter at the Tuesday Forum series, organized by The Chamber - Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, in partnership with the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. Area businesses, leaders, and community members learn about and discuss issues critical to Northwest Ottawa County and plan for its future through a six-part breakfast speaker series, “Envisioning Our Community’s Future.”
Richard Bernstein was first elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014. (Courtesy)
A Democratic Party nominee who was first elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014, Bernstein won re-election in November to a second eight-year term. Outside of his legal career, he is an avid athlete who has completed 25 marathons and an Ironman. He has shown resilience and strength in meeting life’s challenges. Last week, he announced he was seeking treatment outside of the state to address mental health issues and would miss in-session court hearings in the short term.

Bernstein was invited to talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion in building strong communities. He spoke about the importance of inclusivity, finding the courage to make mistakes, and turning adversity into something impactful and transformational.

Bernstein, who has been legally blind since birth, has been an advocate for people with disabilities most of legal career. He practiced law with his family’s personal injury law firm in Farmington Hills before being elected as a Supreme Court justice in 2014. 

In one of his high-profile victories in private practice, he helped set the standard for disability accommodations for commercial facilities by representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America in a case against the University of Michigan. The case alleged that a $226 million renovation of Michigan Stadium violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing adequate seating, restrooms, concessions, and parking for fans with disabilities. As part of a 2008 settlement, the university agreed to add 329 wheelchair seats throughout the stadium as well as an additional 135 accessible seats in clubhouses, in addition to the existing 88 wheelchair seats.

The legal victory was considered groundbreaking because it set precedent for the uniform distribution of accessible seating in stadiums. It now serves as a blueprint for stadiums and other public facilities to ensure accessibility. 

“It wasn't just about people attending a football game. It wasn't just about making sure that folks could go and sit in the stands and have that experience. It was about the notion that the Michigan Stadium was a gathering place. It was a community center,” Bernstein says. “(It) was making sure that everybody is a part of the community, making sure that nobody is left out of the community, making sure that nobody is forgotten.”

Fighting isolation

No one likes to feel excluded, Bernstein stresses. While nearly everyone has been left out at some time in their life, a disability can make it an everyday experience. 

“The hardest thing that some people go through is that notion that everybody is invited to go someplace or do something and they're not,” Bernstein says. “I just think that there's nothing more painful to people than being alone, or having that feeling of just being isolated. Or having that feeling of just being left out.”
Justice Richard Bernstein has participated in 25 marathons. (Courtesy)
His life’s work has been to make sure that people with disabilities “could be a part of the community, could experience life in the community, could have jobs or a purpose in the community,” he says.

He also advocates for giving people the space to learn from their mistakes. 

“I always get concerned when people who have really good intentions to work with different communities get criticized for how they do it. … If you're going to try to do this for the right reasons, then we should celebrate that,” he says. “You don't want to create a situation where people are going to say, ‘You know what, it's too hard to do this. I don't want to be a part of this because if I do this it backfires, it could wind up going poorly for me.’”

He shared a lesson he learned when he criticized a fellow justice’s decision to hire a law school graduate who served time for armed robbery as a law clerk. He later admitted he was wrong and publicly apologized. 

“When we talk about inclusion, and when we talk about diversity, we can't be afraid to make mistakes. We can't be afraid to do something that might be wrong, as long as you own it, as long as you take responsibility for it … as long as you basically allow yourself to grow from it. And maybe the key thing about diversity and inclusion is what we do when a circumstance develops and we have the opportunity to learn from it.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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