Richard Bernstein knows how to tackle adversity head on. Blind since birth, he has completed 18 marathons, even after his hip and pelvis were fractured after he was hit by a bicycle in a terrible accident two years ago. This would be impressive enough to warrant awe, but Richard Bernstein is better known as Justice Bernstein, as he was just elected to an eight year term to Michigan’s Supreme Court.
Originally from Bloomfield Hills, in 1996, he received his Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude from the University of Michigan, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Kappa Phi and student body president of the College of Literature, Science and Arts. He then went on to become the first blind student at Northwestern, where he received his legal degree. Much of Bernstein’s legal work has focused on protecting the rights of people with disabilities, which is done pro bono.
Between his unbelievably busy schedule of training for marathons and ironman competitions, and memorizing hundreds of pages of legal briefs that come before him each month, he took some time to address some of EMU’s own. His lecture focused on overcoming adversity and viewing diversity as strength.
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” Justice Bernstein asks. An age old question if there ever was one. Justice Bernstein thinks that the secret is in life experiences. He told the audience comprised of UNIV and Edge students, “We have been blessed with a struggle. We have been blessed with good life experience.”
Some of Justice Bernstein’s struggle involved overcoming his lack of sight. He added, “85% of blind Americans are unemployed. It isn’t because they can’t do anything; they get trapped thinking they can’t.” While in law school, for example, to take tests, he could not feasibly use text to speech during a limited test time, and braille translation of dense legal documents would wind up being thousands of pages long. This left only one option: memorization. Each week, even as a sitting Supreme Court justice, Bernstein memorizes thousands of pages of legal details about hundreds of cases each month so he can discuss them with his fellow justices.
After his prepared remarks, the floor was opened up to questions. One students asked if he was always so cheerful, positive and relentlessly optimistic. His response was that,” No one is happy all of the time. You can’t look at life as a snapshot. That’s just a single instance in time. So yes there may be days that seem tough, but they are the days that you have to adapt to challenges. There will be good days and there will be bad days. You need to pace yourself and take the good with the bad.”
Justice Bernstein’s time at EMU was brief, but his words had a lasting impact. His next destination after leaving EMU? NYC. But it’s not for sightseeing; he has marathon #19.