Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein has been working from the Middle East for nearly three months as part of an effort to spread cultural and disability awareness.
The 46-year-old blind justice has been participating in Michigan Supreme Court hearings and deliberations remotely, spending most of the last three months in Dubai.
Bernstein’s story was profiled in The Jerusalem Post Wednesday, which reported the Birmingham resident had initially planned to quarantine in Dubai for two weeks before arriving in Israel when the Jerusalem borders closed.
But Bernstein, who is Jewish, disputed the Jerusalem Post report and said Thursday that he wasn’t “stuck” in Dubai. Instead, he had been asked to stay longer than his initial two-week stay. He moved on to Tel Aviv on in recent days.
Bernstein said he’d been involved in spreading awareness about disabilities for several years, especially after speaking at the United Nations in 2017. An opportunity to expand that effort in the Middle East emerged recently after the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations among Israel and several Gulf states and Muslim nations.
“In that part of the world, the idea of a blind judge is just not something that’s heard of,” Bernstein said. “It created a wonderful opportunity to have a better understanding.”
For some people in positions of power, a disability such as blindness, even among family, is something “you don’t want to acknowledge it because you think its taboo and a source of weakness,” Bernstein said. He hopes his story will help to change that attitude and open doors to understanding and better programs for the disabled.
“The idea is for this to be done in such a way that people can feel a connection,” he said. “If you’re trying to create a new awareness, you have to change the narrative.”
The Michigan Supreme Court has been meeting remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most justices participating via web cam and Zoom. Bernstein often participates by phone.
Bernstein said the pandemic provided an opportunity to participate in both his work in the Middle East and deliberations with the high court. But he said balancing the two has required hours and hours of work.
The Post reported Bernstein could often be seen walking down the Palm Jumeirah Boardwalk, “repeating legal texts line by line to himself” and sometimes trekking up to 20 miles a day.
“If we were doing court in person and I wasn’t there, of course that’s not acceptable. But right now, what difference does it make?” Bernstein said.
“If you’re able to do it, why wouldn’t you want to change or make a difference?”