It's hard to decide what makes Richard Bernstein such a remarkable human being...
There are many TV interviews which Richard has given since visiting Australia. MyCareSpace was lucky enough to meet Richard in a very informal setting with no flashing lights where he shared some of his more personal thoughts on life as an elite athlete and as the first blind person to be appointed as a Justice of the Supreme court.
From the outset its clear Richard is a person that does not sleep very much or sit around on the couch. What he doesn't say but is abundantly clear to us is that he is fiercely determined and hard working beyond what most of us would imagine is possible. He has dedicated much of his life to his work in the US justice system and to his passion for running marathons. Richard spoke to us on a few things that are close to his heart:
What qualities make a good judge?
It's not the university or school you attended or your intellectuality but most important is that you understand how you are you affecting people’s lives. Usually the supreme court is the last stop for people . Its ones' life experiences and how you bring those to bear as a judge that are most critical – and sometimes its ones' personal struggles and being a survivor can be the very thing that make you a better judge. What's the point of saying “Things will be fine” when you see a friend in a tough life changing situation ? Why say that when you don’t really know it is true? Its offensive and shallow and demonstrates no thought or understanding of the circumstances.
The essence of life is not about being happy all the time. Its not real. Life is about ones ability to recover and adapt. Its more important learning how to adapt to a new situation. After being hit by a cyclist while running in Central Park four years ago I had to adapt to a new proximity of life, a life with constant, chronic pain.
How did your accident impact you?
As a man, being athletic and in mint physical shape all my life, athletics was a way of showing my masculinity and my abilities. It was a part of my identity. I had done 18 marathons and built my endurance. I was invincible. My accident left me with a shattered hip and pelvis and the most intense pain that defied words to describe it. The most difficult thing was knowing that at one time I could do so much more. Lying in a hospital bed showed me how 'life is always about the little things never about the big things". I used to dream about just going out to a restaurant. In that situation its the absence of small things - these are the things that you long for the most.
What does it meant to adapt?
Apdapting meants having a sense of perspective - you may have bad days or bad weeks. What I focus on is one good thing and use the positive to balance out negative experiences. Many of my days are not so joyous. It takes me five time as long to do my work compared to most people. Adapting means you may have to work harder and longer but there are things that make it worthwhile. For example were were recently able to set free 3 people who had been sentenced to life with no parole. We found them to be innocent. Things like this makes it worthwhile and being part of something bigger and having a sense of mission.
Every week the panel of Supreme Court Justices preside over 25 cases. It would be impossible for them to braille all the material covering these cases - it would simply be too voluminous. I had to find a way to still prepare for my work and so I memorise the details of all the cases to prepare. It takes me about 12-15 hours to prepare.
How have you dealt with discrimination in your career?
During the 'election campaign' to be elected as a Supreme Court Justice I insisted my campaign slogan be " Blind Justice" - so rather than avoid the topic and ignore the fact that I was blind I gave people the opportunity to talk about it and ask questions. When people don't ask questions, it means they are uncomfortable and thats not a good thing. In our campaign we had 10% of the budget as the republicans but I travelled all across the state -which is a huge state - and in the end we won by 10 points which is a significant margin in these matters. I believe its because people identified with me as a person.
Justice Richard Bernstein is a phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan. He earned a juris doctrate from the Northwestern University School of Law. In 2014 he was elected as Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan.