Fighting for Injustice and Greater Opportunities
Promises made, promises kept sounds like a campaign slogan. For Justice Richard Bernstein, the first blind justice elected to the Michigan Supreme Court, this is his life’s mission. The promise? If Justice Bernstein made it through law school and passed the bar, he would dedicate his professional life to service, specifically service to other people with disabilities. He made good on that promise by representing plaintiffs in some of the most impactful court cases surrounding the ADA and by traveling the world promoting education and inclusion of people with disabilities. Justice Bernstein took a brief break from dealing with weight of recent cases and his current race for re-election to speak with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and share his history of honoring his promise of fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.
Justice Richard Bernstein: Hi! Thank you for calling, Chet, how are you today?
Chet Cooper: I’m good, how are you?
Bernstein: You know, it’s been a long week. This’ll be a nice respite.
Cooper: Okay, we’ll both put our heads down and take a nap.
Bernstein: I’m up for that. But see, the problem is, when I wake up, all the stress and anxiety is still there.
Cooper: It’s still on your desk, or in your head?
Bernstein: (laughs) It doesn’t go away, basically. It’s pretty much right there. No change! This is not an easy time to be a judge!
Cooper: Maybe we could go backwards with that concept of being a judge. What do you remember prompting you to want to become an attorney?
Bernstein: You know what it was? At the end of the day, the only way that things will change is if you have people with disabilities who will be in positions where they can have the opportunity to make an impact that will make life better for folks. It’s that simple. I’m so excited to do this interview because, honestly, it’s such an important thing. I’m sure you probably find this in the work that we both do. People always get it opposite. They always say, “Oh, you know, disabled people.”
We know exactly what we can achieve, and we know exactly what we are capable of doing. The challenge that exists is for able-bodied people to simply give us an opportunity and to give us a shot. Everyone always gets it opposite. They always say, “Oh, you know, it’s great to give one disabled (a chance), you can show what disabled people can do.” No, it’s wrong. The whole idea is all disabled people have tremendous potential. The real issue is we need people who are not disabled to simply give us an opportunity or give us a chance to succeed. That’s really what it is. The able-bodied people have to change their perspective about what our potential is and see our capabilities.
Cooper: Yeah. It’s always tough for me to interview people when I find that we’re preaching to the choir ourselves; we know these things. But I wanted to get back to the original question. When you were in elementary school, junior high, high school, where do you think it triggered that you thought, “Law is where I want to go?”
Bernstein: I think my experience is probably similar to a lot of other people’s experience because I think it comes down to the notion that you see that there can be some change. When you’re in school, basically, it’s that ability to stand up to people. It’s one of those situations that when you have a disability, you’re subject to the whim of other people. I think that, for me, my perspective was: There are so many things that happen to us every single day, and we have to advocate for everything. I felt that law is the one area where you could really make a difference. I don’t know if I can answer the question by saying what triggered it from that early an age. But what I can say is that when I did go to law school, it was a brutal experience. Everything takes me four times longer. If it takes you an hour to do something, it takes me four. So, you have a one-to-four ratio.
In law school, it was a struggle, the intensity of trying to get through it. I am a spiritual person, and it was a cold January night in Chicago. I’d just gone to Northwestern, I remember, when I was in school, the fact that all of my friends did exceptionally well in law school. And I didn’t do so well. But I worked so much harder. I would give it everything I had. My friends would do really well, but they didn’t have to put in that same degree of intense effort, that raw tenacity, that intensity that I would put in every day. It was such a difficult time.
I prayed to the creator, and I said to God, “Look, I really want this. If you let me become a lawyer, I want this like you can’t imagine. I will dedicate my entire professional career to representing folks with disabilities who otherwise can’t afford representation. But God, please, you have to let me get through law school, to pass the bar. You have to grant me this opportunity. If you give me this chance to become a lawyer, I promise I’ll use it to help those with disabilities and special needs and I will provide representation that no one else is doing.” And ultimately, miraculously, I graduated from law school, even more miraculously passed the bar.
Which is a miracle.
Cooper: Were you able to have study groups with your friends?
Bernstein: No. Because I was too slow, my presence there wouldn’t have benefited the group.
Cooper: I think most people don’t understand that in law school so many study groups form, and if you’re doing it on your own, it is more difficult.
Bernstein: Yeah. And I didn’t mind it. I don’t think it’s hurtful, it was one of those things where when people come to study groups, they want to have the people they think will be more beneficial. I don’t think I would be able to add to that. I just did it on my own. But my goal was different. My goal was I just get through and graduate. I would see that as a remarkable achievement.
Cooper: And if you passed the bar, even more so?
Bernstein: Exactly. It all kind of worked out. After graduating I went to family practice. I was very lucky that I had a family law firm, and I went back and said, “I want to start a public services division. “We’re not going to make any money. We’re going to lose a fortune.”
I said, “a promise is a promise.” I was really selling it. “I made a promise that if I would pass the bar that I would dedicate my professional career to helping people with disabilities. When you make a promise, you have to honor your promise.” And my family was incredibly supportive, which was amazing. And that’s why I did what I did. We started our public services division. We never charged for legal representation. We took on cases that nobody else was interested in and nobody else would take because they were too costly. They were way too expensive. We took them pro bono. I wanted people to understand that disability rights is a civil right. I wanted people to not see this as anything other than basic civil rights, and that’s what I did. I would take on these cases and fight.
Cooper: How many family members are in the practice?
Bernstein: My dad, my older brother, and my younger sister.
Cooper: Oh, great!
Bernstein: Yes. And I’ve been out of the practice now for eight years.
Cooper: Nice. Do you want to share a couple of the bigger cases you had?
Bernstein: Sure. A lot of this comes from kind of a religious perspective, having a certain spiritual guidance that I like to use. My first major case was against the city of Detroit. That was an intense case, as intense as it gets. The city was operating its buses and about 60% of their fleet of the wheelchair lifts were inoperable. I represented paralyzed veterans. If you have only 40% of the fleet that’s operable with wheelchair lifts, that means that it makes it near to impossible to get around and do basic things. You would have vets who would try to go to doctors’ appointments and do the kinds of things that they would do, and they would get stuck in transfers. They’d board one bus that maybe had a lift that worked, and then they’d get to a transfer point and that lift didn’t work, and they would have to sit there and wait.
This would go on for hours and hours. This is why I became a lawyer. It’s ridiculous how they were treated. These were veterans. They’d plead with DDOT (Detroit Department of Tranportation), they would say, “Look, we really need help. We need to have operational bus lifts so we can commute. We need help.” And they would get literally these little snarky orange cards that would come back from DDOT, and it would literally say, “Thank you so much for your interested in the Detroit Department of Transportation. We so appreciate your feedback, and we look forward to serving you.” It was unbelievable. These people were struggling. We sued them. I had a huge fight with the then Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. This turned into a battle like you would never imagine. He went after me. This was vicious. It could not have been more vicious.
It was unbelievable how intense this guy was. He was telling people who worked for DDOT that they would lose their jobs because of me, and if they’re upset about that, they should go out to Birmingham, where I lived, and take it out on me. And this turned into an absolutely battle. It was unbelievable how much we were fighting. This went on for seven years. We were fighting literally every week. I kid you not. This was on the front page of the paper. The mayor was saying, “We’re not going to let Mr. Bernstein tell us how to run our city. We don’t need outsiders coming in to tell us—”
Ultimately the Department of Justice intervened and joined us as the plaintiff.
Cooper: How did it end?
Bernstein: It ended very well, though. The city had a monitor. It ended well because this set the standards and guidelines for all commercial fixed-route public transportation. Now, when you go to different cities and you see those kneeling buses, the ones that lean over, that came out of the DDOT bus case. This set the standard for all public transit providers across the country.
These cases tend to work out because you do it for the right reason. The other case I had that was challenging. I used to be a professor at the University of Michigan. I taught political sciences. I was an adjunct professor. I taught one class a week for a number of years, but then I sued them.
So, I don’t teach there any more!
Bernstein: I wonder why that happened! I make friends all over. But that was a really interesting one. The University of Michigan—I love talking to you, because my job is so intense right now that this allows me to remember why we do it. —It was wrong, and they knew it was wrong, and that’s what infuriated me.
I represented the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). The issue was that the PVA came to me, and they said, “Look, we need your help because we have a lot of folks who are not following through with their rehab because, when they come back from combat, from service, they are going back to the university in ROTC or what have you.
The challenge is that when everybody else goes to a football game on a Saturday morning, they just sit in their dorm room. They don’t go. They don’t participate. And these were guys and girls who used to do that. They’re no longer feeling like they’re a part of the community. When they left, they were able-bodied; and when they came back, they’re wheelchair users. It’s having a huge impact because they feel left out and isolated. They don’t feel like they’re a part of the community. They just feel a sense of isolation. This is enhancing that feeling of isolation that they’re ultimately having.
We sued the university. They were spending $350 million on this facility to renovate it. And as you know, according to the ADA, if you alter a facility, you’ve got to bring it into ADA compliance. If you repair an existing facility, you don’t. What the university was doing was just wrong, and they knowingly were doing this. They were basically approving different projects as individual projects. They would say, “We’re putting in new benches.” The next week they’d say, “We’re putting in a new bathroom. We’re putting in new cement. We’re putting in a new scoreboard.” Their entire argument was that “We aren’t altering the structure. We’re just making a series of repairs. Therefore, we don’t have to bring it into ADA (compliance).”
The problem with that is every commercial facility will wind up doing exactly that. If you own a mall or a hotel, if you make a series of repairs, you’re not altering it, under that argument, and therefore you don’t have to make it compliant. It was sinister. So we sued them, and that went on for that many years.
Ultimately, that was another case where the Department of Justice had to intervene (laughs) because that was going to affect literally commercial facilities all across the U.S. Think about it. Let’s say you’re a hotel owner. You’ll simply say, “I’m not altering. I’m just repairing. This is not an alteration. It’s just a simple repair.” That case resulted setting all the guidelines and parameters for what is an alteration versus what is a repair when you’re dealing with a commercial facility.
And I’ll just share one more. The third case I was very passionate over was a fight with Delta Airlines. That was really interesting, and I don’t want to get too overly ethical, but the issue was does the ADA extend to U.S. aviation? Are people with disabilities covered by the ADA when they fly? This case ultimately set forth—it was a great thing—the guidelines and parameters for U.S. aviation, how you build an airport, how you modify an airport to the procedures and protocols that U.S. aviators have to follow in order to allow for those with disabilities to travel in a safe, accessible fashion. People have to realize that the airlines really didn’t want people with disabilities to travel. Compliance costs a lot of money. Their attitude was “Fine. If you don’t want to fly, that’s kind of what we want. We would love it if you didn’t fly. That would work great.”
I had a plaintiff on that one, an amazing woman, national tax expert. And this affected her job applications and her employment. She was a nationally known tax expert and she was known in her field. Every time she flew—They didn’t intentionally do this, but they broke her wheelchair. They didn’t intend for that to happen. They didn’t train their people or focus on how to transport it safely. And she had MS. When they drug her wheelchair out of the plane into the cargo, it would break it. And you can’t use an airport chair. It’s a custom-built chair. So, people would get to their destinations with no way to get around. They just stopped traveling.
We really worked on it. That was a big fight. What I really liked about that case and all of these cases. I like to be uplifting about this. After you go through so much, you’re like, there should be something uplifting that comes out of it. The thing that was really cool about that case, and I think all these cases, whether it was Detroit, University of Michigan, Delta, and others, what would always happen, especially in Delta, the people who worked there who were working on these issues would say, “This is incredibly reasonable. This will make life better for my kids.” So many people have disabled children. Or they would say, “My parents are struggling when they fly, and this will make things a lot better for them.” This is doable. And everything we’re working on together will enhance the experience. And more importantly, it will result in making it easier and better. We can do this. We can make this happen.
What I loved about Delta was, as long as you’re reasonable, once they see, in all of these cases, that you’ll fight the distance, then you’re not just making noise, you’ll really fight as long and hard as you need to. And no matter what, you will not back down. In all these cases you’ll have their summary disposition motion, their motions to dismiss, and you survive those motions and you get through them. Once you get through that initial fight, they know that you will fight this until the end because you’ve got a lot of fight in you.
And it doesn’t matter that they outnumber you and you sit there by yourself. Literally, I would go to court and sit at a table by myself with no papers. I can’t read them. I would sit by myself at my table with nothing, and the other side would have, like, ten people at their table. So, you would look at the visual. It was me at my table sitting by myself with nobody, blind, memorizing all this stuff. And then you’d look at the other table, and they’d have boxes of stuff and crates. That’s how it was.
Once they realized that you were going to be a fighter and you were not going to back down, this happened in every case. People really get along and start to like each other. They get to know you. Most importantly, you really affect each other. You spend so much time together, you start to become fond of the other side, and they become fond of you. And in Delta, they were like, “We’ll go beyond what the consent decree says. We’re going to do this, and we’ll do it well. We’re really into this. We really believe in this. We think it’ll make a better experience not just for people with disabilities, but for all of our passengers.” And they did.
Bernstein: They went further than what the court asked them to do. They’re a wonderful airline. Are they perfect? No. No airline is. But have they made a wonderful effort? Did they make it a priority? It is something they care about? Are they sensitive to the issue? Absolutely. Perfect? No. But did they really want to do a good job? Yes.
Cooper: What is the difference between the Air Carrier Access Act and what you were doing?
Bernstein: That’s a really great question. I’m so glad you asked. You’re awesome. This is a great interview because you really know. I love it when you do an interview with someone who really digs in.
Bernstein: In all the years I’ve done interviews on these cases, no one’s ever asked me that question. And I’m ecstatic that you did. So here is the reason, the distinction, the problem with the Air Carrier Access Act is that it doesn’t allow for private right of action. That is a huge problem. The reason it’s so flawed and why you had such horrific service and why you had airlines denying service to people was that the only entity that could access the Air Carrier Access Act was the federal government. This made it impossible to enforce.
For example, let’s say in transfer, they don’t do it correctly, and you get thrown on the ground. Your only recourse was to go to the Department of Transportation (DOT). That was it. The airlines loved it because the DOT is not always the greatest in terms of enforcement.
And you run into the issue individuals can’t enforce it, only the government can take action. Let me put it this way; it wasn’t the government’s priority at the time I was doing this litigation for them to do enforcement. They were really excited about it. There was horrible stuff happening to people who were flying, inexcusable things happening to all types of disabled travelers, to the point that a lot of people with disabilities would travel only if it was a requirement because things were so problematic.
Like with the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) case, you’d have a horrible experience, and all you can do is write a letter to the FAA, which is part of the DOT. You say, “Look at this horrible thing that happened to me.” When I got involved in this, the reason our case developed and the reason we got involved is because the government wasn’t. That’s the issue. The ADA allows for a private right of action. This allows for individual people with disabilities to take action against the airlines.
Cooper: Everyone should be aware you took action, thanks. Have you heard of Dr. Hazeltine?
Bernstein: No, tell me.
Cooper: I forget how she got involved in this, but she was seeing so many wheelchairs, especially power chairs, being destroyed during travel, that she created carriers that fit perfectly within the cargo area of planes. She pitched them to all the airlines. She spent years and lots of her own money to build this out. It just never—pun intended—took off.
Bernstein: (laughs) I got that!
Cooper: Those are some big cases you worked on. They changed lots of lives from the work that you’ve done for many years to come.
Bernstein: It was not an easy case. I had some wonderful associates I worked with.
Cooper: I’m sure you’ve worked with some great people.
Bernstein: Yeah, we had some good people who believed in the cause.
Cooper: And it’s great that the Justice Department stepped in on a couple of those cases.
Bernstein: That was helpful. At a certain point, you’re fighting with a city and a university that have endless resources. The issue is that the cases were going to have national implications, so it’s good that they came in. At a certain point, you’ve got to have a balance.
Cooper: I think Pete Buttigieg would have changed how the DOT handled cases. He’s really in tune with trying to get more accessibility within all the things that DOT is doing today. There was an announcement made on the 26th (Anniversary of the ADA) about funds making train and metro stations accessible in older cities.
Cooper: Within a few years the level of access will be completely different.
Bernstein: That’s fabulous! Oh, I love to hear that! I was unaware of that. With the court cases so crazy and intense, I’ve been in my own world. That’s wonderful news. You sharing that, sometimes you have to look back and say, “It’s not easy, but things are getting better.”
Cooper: You mentioned the buses. Years ago, those buses weren’t around. Now they can lean and be green. DOT has a lot of intersectionality whether it’s accessible transportation, environmental concerns, health issues, employability, all of the aspects that come into play. What are your views on ride share and autonomous vehicles?
Bernstein: I think they’re fantastic. For someone like myself, Uber has been transformative, it’s changed my life, it’s amazing. I still use public transit, but Uber is amazing. The idea is it’ll become a higher form of Uber.
Cooper: That’s what I’m picturing. You just use your phone and a car comes to you and you get in and it takes you somewhere, no driver.
Bernstein: It’s really incredible. Thinking about how it used to be before Uber, I still take the bus, but Uber has enhanced my life and made it much better. And now, if you take it one step further, they’ll make it even better than that.
Cooper: Did you see the litigation against Uber for people of disabilities and charging extra time?
Bernstein: Yeah, I’m not allowed to comment.
Cooper: So, knock once for yes, knock two times for no.
Bernstein: (laughs) I like that.
Cooper: The Department of Justice sent us a press release about their settlement for charging extra time to passengers with disabilities. Uber has now changed their policy and provided a monetary settlement.
You’re going to run for another term, correct?
Bernstein: I am. I’m finishing my first eight-year term and running for re-election to hopeful go on to my second term.
Cooper: The people vote, right?
Bernstein: There’s always this ongoing discussion about is it better to be appointed or to be elected? There are issues with both. I am a huge fan of elections. I think that as difficult as elections are, I am one hundred percent supportive of the electoral process for judges. Here in Michigan, to be a Supreme Court justice, you are elected by the entire state. It’s analogous to running for Senate. It’s a state-wide office. If you want to be a Supreme Court justice in the state of Michigan, there are 11 million people who live in this state, and you have to be elected by the state.
Our Supreme Court races are brutal. You have the negatives ads, the literature, the push-polling, the push calls, the robocalls, the mailers, the television ads, billboards. It’s the same as what you’d experience, like I said, as a Senate race. People ask, “Is that the best way to choose judges?” I say yes, but it’s no fun when people do negative ads about you. It’s not a fun experience, not something you look forward to especially for people with disabilities. When I did this eight years ago, we found this is what happens.
If this wasn’t an election, but an appointment process and you had to go in front of a merit selection board, let’s say Michigan had an appointment and you had to go in front of a board.
If you have a disability, you go in front of the board and people would say, “Oh, wow, that’s so interesting! That’s so great!” Or they use the i-word, “Oh, my God, that’s so inspiring!” And as soon as you walk out of the interview and the door is closed, they’ll say, “What a fabulous story, but I don’t think that’ll work. Let’s go with someone who looks and sounds like us, whom we don’t have to take a chance on. There’s too much of a risk here. What if it doesn’t work out? Let’s just go with a safe bet, with someone we know won’t require all these accommodations.”
The great thing about elections is you take this choice to the people. What was fascinating was they found in the polling I won by 10 points, and the newspapers were trying to figure out what was going on. I got outspent 10 to 1. Why is it that this blind guy is doing so well in the polling, even though he’s being outspent by so much? This was eight years ago. They found that people, when they were asked, said, “I really want this blind person. I want a person with a disability.” And people were surprised at that. They weren’t sure. It had never been done before. “Is this a risk, putting a disabled person on the ballot?”
It’s one thing to have disabled people work with you, but now, you’re asking for people to allow for a disabled person to be in a position where they make decisions that affect able-bodied people. People said, “We love it. This is what we prefer.” And the reason was overwhelming, and the polling and the election showed it. People said, “My kid is getting bullied at school. I’m having trouble at work. My parents have to go into assisted living. I’m struggling constantly. I want someone who’s able to understand what it means to really struggle. I don’t need a fancy blue-chip lawyer. I want someone who has life experience and who understands what it means to really struggle, to be different.” They found that people really respected disability because it allowed for them to reconcile and realize that you could understand their struggles and their challenges and their difficulties. That notion that people are sick and tired of people in government, people who make decisions at these high levels, who don’t have a basic understanding or appreciation for what it means to have to face adversity or difficulty.
Cooper: Let’s hope that view continues. I’ll switch subjects. Can you talk about your advocacy work around the world?
Bernstein: I do these things that will make a difference and have an impact, but I’ve always thought that really the best thing I can do, especially as a blind person who’s a judge, that my focus is to be a good judge. When people see you doing your work, doing your job as a judge, that’s what allows for them to see the potential in having other disabled people serve as judges. My goal is to get people with disabilities to serve more in the judiciary.
Cooper: Whenever you travel around the world you’re behind-the-scenes bringing awareness as a judge and blindness—
Bernstein: I’ve been working internationally for well over 10 years. I’ll give you an example. I was working in Austria, and there it used to be very difficult for people to become judges. There’s a publication there called “Profil,” kind of like their “New York Times.” They did a huge story about this issue. In Austria, if you want to become a judge, you have to go to a separate school for it. It’s not an election. You have to go to school. If you were blind, you weren’t allowed to go into school, to move forward to do it. The belief was that if you were blind, you couldn’t serve as a judge. I did a speaking tour through Austria and did a lot of work. They’ve now changed it. If you have a disability and you want to be a judge, you can do it. This is the kind of stuff I do.
If you look up the Sydney Morning Herald, I helped Australia push through their disabilities act. You can find that in the Australian press. A lot of it started in Israel. Quick back story, I really wanted to be in the U.S. military and be a JAG officer. When I was coming out of law school, I interviewed, but they said, “Look, because you’re blind, you can’t serve in uniform.” I said, “Even as a lawyer?” The issue was, you still have to handle a firearm, you have to carry a weapon. Obviously, you can’t do that because you have no vision and you’re blind. I said, “I don’t know how many lawyers are running along tanks. I could still be a JAG officer.” And they said, “No, it’s a service restriction. We can’t do it.”
So, in Israel it’s compulsory military. We developed a whole program that allowed disabled people to serve in different units as volunteers. I worked on this for years. Regardless of whether it was physical or cognitive, if they wanted to serve as a volunteer, they could do it. If you don’t serve in the military, you’re kind of left out of the culture. The person I was working on this initiative with was a top gun Israeli pilot, a JDF fighter pilot. That became so successful that it spread to militaries all across the world.
This became so successful that we developed programs within Israel to allow for disabled people to work within the Israeli government. And then Israeli businesses started joining on to become a part of this. It got to the point where Israel asked if I would be willing to represent them at the UN and speak about these issues and what was going on. So, I spoke at the UN, in Austria, because we combined it with the Austria work. There are a lot of parties involved different governments, a lot of people.
When you travel the world and go to different countries, there’s one commonality that people have in other countries, including people in power. It’s that many of them have children with severe disabilities. Because there is such a stigma to it, there needs to be change of attitude. I don’t do policy or anything of that sort. But it’s your existence.
I’ll give you another example in India. I was working on the untouchables because, as you know, these are children with severe disabilities. I was working with the Indian press. I went into the worst slums to meet children that were the untouchables. My goal was spend time with these children, whom nobody else would even acknowledge. By being photographed with them, to be embraced builds awareness.
At the heart of COVID, no one was permitted to go in the court building. During the closure, I was asked to do this work in the Middle East. They were asking if it was possible to go and spend some time over there.
A prominent person in the Middle East told me, “I never realized the potential my son has. I never realized his potential. I never realized what he could accomplish or achieve. What should we do about it? How can we work together? What can I do to make life better for him or other people?” That’s what I would do in Israel. Israel has a wonderful technical ability to come and help on this, devise programs and services. So that’s what we did. We started developing—you can’t just build a school. You have to have programming, modeling, know how to teach. To create these opportunities, create special ed programs, allow for the technical. You’d have to want from a lot of these countries being transformative in this area and Israel provided technical know how on how do you create special ed services? How do you have special ed programming?
Assistive technology. How do you use technology to be helpful and to be assistive? We would do things like have athletic programs and transit and all these aspects. I was basically helping to—The goal was to work with folks who have special needs kids and allow for them to be brought into contact with people who had tremendous technical ability, technical support, to create programs and services as a partnership and best practices with various countries that otherwise didn’t communicate or work well with each other. This was the common thing that allowed people to work on, these parents with special needs kids designing schools, special ed opportunities, assistive technology, athletic opportunities, all that kind of stuff. I’ve been doing this for years.
Cooper: When you were in the UAE were you able to meet with Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi — she runs Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services?
Bernstein: I know who you’re speaking of, I met with her, but I spent most of my time with others.
Cooper: I was fortunate to visit with her and tour the center and her work with families with disabilities—it’s impressive. And more recently I was invited by NYU Abu Dhabi to give several talks to the international press about reporting on disability prior to the Special Olympics International Games. At the end, someone came up to me from the UAE, and said, “By the way, we’ve changed our language about disability….”
Bernstein: (laughs) I know. It’s “people of determination.” That’s so good.
Cooper: I’m so glad you knew that. They are really trying to make changes. Switching gears. Are you able to give your view on term limits on the U.S. Supreme Court?
Bernstein: As a judge, I can’t really get into it. I’ll just answer the question by taking it back to my own situation. Here in Michigan, I like the way we do it. Every eight years people can choose. Hopefully, the people are happy with the work that you’re doing.
Cooper: When I saw the eight-year term in Michigan, I thought the Supreme Court could have with a term of 20 maybe 30 years—not lifetime.
Bernstein: Here it’s interesting. You’re not allowed to run past the age of 70.
Cooper: In that aspect, I think age is a wrong limitation.
Bernstein: I can comment on this. I think that should be changed. I think that in Michigan, as long as you’re standing for election, why is that not something that the people can decide. You’re running for election, let the people make that choice.
Cooper: Yeah, 70 is the new 55.
Bernstein: (laughs) As long as you’re able to do your job, if people aren’t happy with you, they’ll vote you out.
Cooper: Ever think about going back to your private practice?
Bernstein: My focus is this place, we’ve got so much going on. I’ve never had a court term that’s been as difficult as this. We’ve never had cases like this.
Cooper: Can you give example of the cases?
Bernstein: I can’t comment on the disposition, but I can comment on what’s ahead of us. In this Court, the seven justices will have to decide reproductive rights for Michigan. We have to decide all electoral issues. The Court will decide all the rules, all the constitutional questions that arise out of an election—it has to do with redistricting, with the census. We’re dealing with guns in our schools. There’s an old saying, “The road to the White House goes through the Michigan Supreme Court.” That’s why it’s so intense right now. I wrote an opinion on Flint water—We just released an opinion today about juvenile lifers, is it cruel and unusual to send a child to life in prison. That came out just today. I’ve never seen in my tenure on this court, such intensity as it is now.
Cooper: Such important and long-lasting decisions.
Bernstein: Yes. This court will make the final determination on several critical issues.