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Nation’s first blind state Supreme Court justice tells UHLC students how he overcame disability

Richard Bernstein tells students how he overcame blindness to become a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.

Richard Bernstein tells students how he overcame blindness to become a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.

Feb. 17, 2016 – Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Bernstein spoke about the challenges of being the first blind state Supreme Court justice in the country and encouraged law students to truly make a difference with their chosen career, during a talk last week at the University of Houston Law Center.

Bernstein said his blindness presented difficulties, but not insurmountable obstacles during his law school days, as a trial attorney, and on the bench. For instance, his disability requires him to commit case law and other information to memory.

“When I was at Northwestern going through law school as a blind person was excruciatingly difficult,” he said. “I can’t read, so I would have to memorize entire fact patterns with a reader for hours. It took me four to five times longer to do things than it did for a sighted person. As a justice, I also have to memorize. I memorize 26 cases every single week backwards and forwards.”

During his visit, Bernstein also urged students to practice law “for the right reasons” and said despite difficulties in the judicial process, passionate attorneys can make a positive impact.

“I recognize that whenever you tell somebody you want to go to law school, the usual response is ‘Oh, great, just what we need is another lawyer.’ But I have to be honest -- we do need more lawyers. We need more caring lawyers. We need kind and compassionate lawyers. We need lawyers who really care about people.

“What you should know is that you’re going into a profession where you have the opportunity to literally change people’s lives,” he continued. “It is the one profession, for all intents and purposes, where you can bring change and make a difference for people. You have a chance to really stand up for people who otherwise don’t have anywhere else to go. You have a chance to fight for them and bring them justice.”

Bernstein was elected to an eight-year term in 2012 as a Democrat.

He previously worked as a trial attorney for 15 years at his family’s firm, The Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Detroit. After passing the bar exam, the firm established a pro-bono public services division where Bernstein focused on cases that fought for the rights of people with disabilities or special needs. He has also taught political science at the University of Michigan. The lunch hour discussion in the Hendricks Heritage Room was co-sponsored by the Law Center’s Health Law & Policy Institute, Evening Law Students Association, and Health Law Organization.

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