Justice Bernstein: I had an incredibly supportive family and that was a blessing: my parents, my brother and my sister were all just amazing. I was raised with the idea that there were no limits and no obstacles and that life would be challenging, difficult, and hard but that there would be nothing that would be impossible and nothing that I couldn’t hope for, envision, or dream that could ultimately happen. I was taught Braille at a very early age which I haven’t used in well over 25 years as technology has provided a greater level of opportunity to people like myself than we could have ever imagined or even thought was possible.
Justice Bernstein: It was a very difficult time in school because they didn’t really know how to accommodate somebody like myself with a disability such as blindness. When I was going to the gym class for the physical fitness I was pretty much on the side-lines while everybody else got a chance to be a part of it. As I got older things got a lot better as I was presented with opportunities in which I had chances to experience things that I never even knew existed and have adventures. I became part of a program called Achilles which believes that anybody who wants to run should have a chance to do so. It works with severely disabled people like myself and gives us an absolutely incredible opportunity. Thanks to Achilles I run with guides who give me directional cues as I participate in a marathon: hard right, soft right, hard left, soft left. I have been a pretty intense athlete for about eight or nine years. I have had the incredible opportunity to complete 18 city marathons and a full Ironman competition.
Justice Bernstein: That’s correct. It’s the same person for the whole event. It was a lot of training, discipline and work. It took about 2 years of training to do an Ironman. For those people who aren’t familiar with an Ironman, it is a 2.4 miles swim, followed by a 112 miles bike ride, which is followed by a 26.2 miles run. If you stop or rest or take a break while you are doing this competition you run the risk of missing a cut-off and being immediately disqualified from it. So you have to start off early in the morning. From start to finish it took 14 hours and 36 minutes of non-stop motion, with no break. I want you to imagine how it would feel if you dive into a frigid body of water. The temperature of Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho where I swam was 55° F (about 13° C). Imagine getting kicked in the face by all the other swimmers and trying to surface but you can’t. Imagine having other swimmers get entangled in the rope that connects you to your guide. When you get entangled you start to drown and you panic and try to get oxygen while the waves come rushing up on you. You come to realize through these kinds of competitions that you are always going to have what you need when you need it. I think the essence of it is that while the body might be mortal the spirit is all powerful. When people with disabilities are given the opportunity and the chance they can do anything and everything that you could ever hope to imagine. Disabled people know what we can do. We simply need able-bodied people to give us a chance and give us an opportunity to do it.
Justice Bernstein: They recruited me. I got a call from Dick Traum who is the founder of Achilles International and he told me that he thought that this would be a program in which I would be interested. A lot of times you just have to reach out to people with disabilities and let them know that you are there and let them know of the opportunities that exist in which they can participate.
Justice Bernstein: I think that the most critical time in a blind person’s life is at the educational or schooling level. The distance that you go in life is going to be dictated by your teachers who mould you and have the greatest level of impact and effect on the kind of person you are going to be. For me it was my high school guidance counsellor, Mr. Lou Ruggirello, who believed that I should have the chance to go to college and become an attorney and have the chance to do anything that I felt possible. The impact of Mr. Ruggirello on my life is what changed everything: why I became a University of Michigan graduate and an attorney and am now serving as a Supreme Court Justice in the state of Michigan.
Justice Bernstein: I knew it was difficult and challenging but the reason that I got interested in the law was basically because my whole family are attorneys, including my brother and my sister. What always impassioned me about the law was that it can give you the opportunity to really have an impact on the lives of people. I always believed that Law is a great equalizer and it can allow for really tremendous change to happen if it is used in an appropriate way. It is the one profession with a strong belief system of doing what is right and standing up for what is right.
Justice Bernstein: I think it was the idea of understanding what if I had been different, what if I had not been blind and what it’s like to have those certain obstacles put in front of you. I’m so blessed with the life that I’ve had because I come from a background where I know certain challenges and difficulties. I am also blessed with financial resources through my family to be able to do things about injustice if I saw something was wrong or I didn’t agree with or which was inappropriate. If you count your disability you are not going to have an easy life but you will have one which is incredibly fulfilling if you are able to live with a sense of mission, focus and a long-term determination which gives you the energy and spirit to go out each and every day and do something meaningful and worthwhile with it.
Justice Bernstein: Oh, yes. In the US the biggest challenge is that you have to take a standardized test, called the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) which measures your IQ and not your ability and has a tremendously devastating impact on people with disabilities. The LSAT requires you to draw pictures and diagrams based on statistics data given in the test. You have an exam which is designed for people who have vision in order to complete it and you make someone who is blind go through it. I think it is wrong and I think it is unequal opportunity, especially since it doesn’t have any bearing or impact on your ability to go through Law school or your ability to become an attorney. Ultimately what’s beautiful about it is that the practice of Law is actually designed for someone who has a visual impairment. The ability to mentalize, internalize, and not see what people look like: these are all great benefits to being an attorney or ultimately being a judge. As a blind Justice I am able to do my job better because I’m unable to see people and so I don’t have preconceived notions or ideas or prejudices. Sometimes you have to appreciate the disability that someone has to realize how in certain professions it ultimately allows them to do their job even better.
Justice Bernstein: I think it’s just a sense of passion and mission and belief that we’re here for a purpose that is bigger and greater than ourselves and that we’re part of a plan that we might not know or appreciate or even begin to comprehend. If you’re able to live your life with an incredible sense of meaning and purpose it gives you a tremendous sense of joy which can be incredibly exhilarating and exciting and fuels your energy, your spirit and your vitality.
Justice Bernstein: I usually rely on people and I memorize and internalize everything. Braille is not going to work because the cases are so voluminous. Adaptive technology isn’t going to work because you can’t be trying to figure out what case they are on when the other judges are already involved in the conversation. I will hear as the Commissioner will read the procedural history of each case which serves as my mental trigger and I am able to recall everything in it and converse with the attorneys when they are presenting their arguments. We Justices have a conference on a weekly basis, each having about 26 cases. I memorize and internalize all the conference items and each case and I am able to have a conversation on equal footing with the other six Justices.
Justice Bernstein: In Michigan a Supreme Court Justice has to be elected by the people of the state. This is a position that you run for. Ultimately this was one of the best experiences of my entire life. It was absolutely incredible because we would travel the entire state of Michigan from the largest city to the smallest town, from the Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula. We campaigned for 12 to 15 hours a day and would talk to anybody who was going to talk to us. I think what being elected to the highest court in the state of Michigan as a severely disabled person shows is that people will give you a chance and an opportunity. It says that the future is really looking up, that people are truly good, and that anything and everything is possible for everyone. I think that is a wonderful blessing which should allow all to be excited and optimistic because the world is only getting better and you can feel that change is coming.