Can a judge be blind? Just think of the most well-known symbol of the American justice system, says Richard Bernstein.
“Lady Justice is a woman wearing a blindfold,” Bernstein, a justice on the Michigan State Supreme Court, said Sunday.
“As a judge, I feel that not being able to see is an advantage, not a disadvantage,” said Bernstein, who was to give an address at the Chabad Okanagan Centre in Kelowna on Monday night.
“You can’t make any judgments based on what a defendant looks like or how they dress,” Bernstein said. “You just have to hear the evidence, read the expert reports and consider the relevant law.”
Bernstein says some jurisdictions have laws specifically preventing people who are blind from being judges. He says such restrictions are just as outdated as now-stricken laws that excluded people with disabilities from a whole range of occupations.
“My hope for the future is that we will see more blind people on the bench,” said Bernstein, who won an eight-year term to Michigan’s highest court in a 2014 statewide election.
“Having people from different backgrounds serving as judges makes for a better judicial system,” he said. “There’s great value in having more diversity in our courts, instead of having all judges come from very similar backgrounds.
“People with disabilities, we know what we can achieve,” he said. “The real challenge is getting able-bodied people to give us a chance.”
He says it’s relatively rare for an American judge to undertake the kind of personal advocacy work that he engages in by promoting an expansion of rights for people with disabilities.
“I would say doing these kind of speaking tours is unusual for a judge, but I do it because I have a passion for this,” Bernstein said. “I sort of see it as my life’s work, to help create a better life for people with disabilities.”
Aside from working a 12- to 15-hour day, Bernstein has also competed in 24 marathons and credits exercise as a way to experience spiritual and personal fulfilment.
“It is through hardship and challenge that we can come to find happiness, joy and, most importantly, triumph,” Berenstein said during a TEDx talk in Cincinnati in 2015.