Judge on Michigan’s top court works while overseas

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan Supreme Court justice said Thursday that he has been overseas for three months, participating in an international program to improve society’s perception of people with disabilities while pulling all-nighters to keep up with his work back home.

Richard Bernstein, who is blind and Jewish, said he’s passionate about the work he’s doing in the United Arab Emirates and Israel and is in no rush to return to Michigan while the court is closed for face-to-face business because of COVID-19.

“Why would I waste another entire year doing nothing? ... For blind people, this pandemic is excruciating,” he told The Associated Press.

The court heard arguments in seven cases Wednesday and five more Thursday.

Bernstein participated by phone from Tel Aviv, Israel, while his six colleagues listened to lawyers and asked questions by video conference. A photo of Bernstein in a black robe was in his Zoom box.

Bernstein said he can be an effective judge no matter where he’s living.

“Everyone is working by phone. What’s the difference — from my apartment versus whatever?” Bernstein said. “If we did anything in person, I’d be there in a second. I’m not allowed in the building. If there wasn’t a pandemic, you can’t do this.”

He said he works “all night” to prepare for oral arguments, which are typically held two days a month back in Michigan.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, a fellow Democrat, didn’t return a message seeking comment.

“She would care if you weren’t getting the job done. She would care if you were holding up the court,” Bernstein said. “None of that has happened.”

State Court Administrator Tom Boyd said Bernstein and the other justices, who were each elected statewide, are peers with no supervisory relationship over each other.

“I have had meetings with Justice Bernstein from Dubai. He’s certainly not missed a case call,” Boyd said. “He’s working. He’s writing. I haven’t seen any evidence that he’s not getting his work done.”

Bernstein said he arrived in Israel last week after about three months in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Working closely with a group called Access Israel, he said he’s made media appearances and tries to inspire people while talking about his life as a blind lawyer and judge. He’s traveled to military bases on behalf of people with disabilities who want to serve.

Bernstein said the invitation grew out of the Abraham Accords, recent agreements between Israel and four Arab nations to establish diplomatic and cultural ties. He said he’s not paid for his work and might next go to Uzbekistan.

“I was asked to go for two weeks,” he said. “It was so successful that they asked for it to be extended. ... I’m really passionate about this. A lot of the leadership in these countries have kids with disabilities. They’re struggling. It’s seen as a taboo.

“Oh my god, people tell me they now realize a different path for their children. They can experience things they didn’t think was possible,” Bernstein said.

He said he plans to run for reelection in 2022.


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