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Richard H. Bernstein, American lawyer and Michigan Supreme Court Justice, after an interview with Gulf News at Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Dubai: Seven thousand miles away from Michigan a blind man seals the fate of scores of people in the US state these days as he walks briskly along the Palm Jumeirah Boardwalk in Dubai, often for six hours at a stretch.

But then Justice Richard Bernstein, 46, is no ordinary man. He is the first visually impaired judge elected by 1.29 million voters to the Supreme Court of Michigan — a position that requires him to oversee 800 judges as well as deliver verdicts in cases ranging from murder and rape to tax evasion.

Justice Richard Bernstein is the first visually impaired judge elected by 1.29 million voters to the Supreme Court of Michigan. Image Credit: Supplied

“I am responsible for 25 cases every week. These are people whose entire lives hang in the balance. People, who in many situations, have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of a parole,” said Bernstein who has been blind since birth due to a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa.

‘Love at first sight’

“Those who come to our appellate court have only one chance to appeal and whatever we decide within that appeal is the final decision. I cannot make a mistake so I memorise and internalise each case and I do that while walking back and forth for up to 35 kilometres on the boardwalk that hugs the coastline behind my hotel. As I am walking I am playing the cases in my mind, thinking what could be a fair and merciful verdict,” he explained.

Bernstein came to Dubai in January hoping to visit Jerusalem but he liked the UAE so much that he stayed back.

“It was love at first sight,” he said, chuckling at the oddity of his own comment. “But truth be told, I absolutely love the UAE. I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world but I have to say that there’s no place like the UAE,” he when we met at Atlantis, The Palm — his work-from-home station for the past six weeks.

“As a blind person it is very challenging to travel and do things on your own. But the beauty of this country is that you are never alone,” he gushed as he effortlessly bounded down the hotel stairs and stepped outside the hotel to begin his daily routine. “Thirty more steps and we will be there,” he said, tapping his collapsible walking stick against the sidewalks. “So many people have helped me around here that I know this area like the back of my hand.”

Judge Bernstein with Juhi Yasmeen (third from left) and a special needs child (right) in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Bernstein said he isn’t leaving Dubai anytime soon as the coronavirus pandemic has allowed him to work remotely. But unlike his colleagues he can’t rely on platforms like Zoom.

Virtual assistant

Instead he uses his virtual assistant Siri to call any of his six clerks who read out the transcripts of each case over the phone. “Of course, I have to factor the time difference. I can’t make notes so I have to know all cases, which means memorising everything down to the minutest details. (Bernstein doesn’t use the Braille). On most days I work for up to 16 hours. It’s like running a marathon.”

Bernstein should know about them, having run 24 marathons over the years — the last seven despite suffering excruciating back pain following a an accident at Central Park in New York in 2012.

Blind judges
The metaphor connecting blindness and fair verdict has been embodied through the image of a blindfolded woman who represents justice but there aren’t too many judicial officers with visual impairment. The most famous blind judge was Justice Zakeria Mohammad Yacoob who headed the constitutional court of South Africa till 2013. Other notable exceptions are Yousaf Saleem of Pakistan, Dr Hans Eugene Schulze of Germany and Shree Sadhan Gupta of India.

He has also done a full Ironman triathlon, which included a 180km bike ride, 42km marathon and nearly 4km swim, without a break. “I am a spiritual person and I love athletics as it allows my soul and spirit to transcend the limitations of my body and make a deeper connection with God. I am a Jew but I love the Quran which is so wise. Islam also encourages exercise and being in good physical shape. I firmly believe that the body should always be in motion.”

Tireless advocate

Before being elected to Michigan’s highest court in 2014, Bernstein worked as a lawyer and was known as a tireless advocate for people with special needs.

He still travels around the world to interact with people with disabilities. Last fortnight he met a family with a special-needs child. The meeting was arranged by Dubai-based social worker Juhi Yasmeen Khan.

Judge Bernstein during a marathon run in 2013. Image Credit: Supplied

Bernstein said he wants to instill self-belief in people with disabilities and change perceptions about them.

“You can triumph over adversity with faith and perseverance. I spent 10 weeks in hospital when a speeding cyclist crashed into me in Central Park. The accident left me with a broken hip and pelvis. The pain was intense but I never let it get the better off me and was soon back on my feet ready to sign for the next marathon,” he said.

Bernstein said people with disabilities have immense potential. “The real challenge is to make able-bodied people believe what we can accomplish. I am often asked, ‘how can you be a judge when you can’t see a crime scene or look into a piece of evidence’. My argument is that we are able to understand and sense people’s spirit because we don’t see them.

Can’t prejudge anyone

“What is the greatest distraction?” he asked and then answered the question himself. “It’s visual distraction. As a blind judge we don’t have to worry about that. We can’t prejudge anyone simply because we don’t know what they look like. So I would venture out to say that a blind judge is a better judge than a sighted one, because isn’t that the truth — justice is blind.”