Justice Bernstein worked from Dubai for nearly three months

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

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.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, center, talks with Bushra Alawie from the FBI office of public affairs, left, and emcee Simon Shaykhet of WXYZ, right, at the Third Annual Justice Awards.

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 in recent days and may do work in Uzbekistan next. He received his COVID-19 vaccine while in Dubai. 

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.”

Bernstein said he has declined any type of payment for his work and said it has not affected his duties with the high court.

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 because he cannot access Zoom. He said he is not aware of a court rule that would bar him from working in a different country while the court is meeting remotely.

"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?”

A spokesperson for the Michigan Supreme Court did not answer questions regarding whether there were rules or policies governing Bernstein working remotely from another country.

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. 

Bernstein's remote work drew criticism from some Republicans, who argued the justice should be in the state while presiding over Michigan cases. 

The Michigan Constitution dictates that a justice who is removed from his domicile, or primary place of residence, beyond the area where he was elected has vacated his seat. 

But Bernstein argued his primary place of residence still is Birmingham and he plans to return once in-person work in Michigan resumes or earlier.

So long as a judge or justice has an intent to return, he or she has not moved his domicile, Dykema attorney Steven Liedel said on Twitter Thursday

"Participation in a Zoom-based court proceeding is no different if one is in Dubai, Windsor, or Ann Arbor," said Liedel, who served as legal counsel to Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

​Tori Sachs, executive director of the conservative Michigan Rising Action, criticized the justice for living in a "5-star hotel overseas" with poor internet connection. She pointed to disruptions in hearings Wednesday and Thursday when Bernstein's call dropped and proceedings had to be stalled. 

"Perhaps Justice Bernstein's bad reception could be because he goes for walks/runs while calling into Michigan Supreme Court," she wrote on Twitter

Because Bernstein is blind, he has to call into Zoom rather than join by a computer. That arrangement, he said, is what leads to the dropped calls not his location or internet connection.