DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (JTA) — On a weekday afternoon, if you walk down the Palm Jumeirah Boardwalk, a promenade overlooking the Arabian Gulf that encircles this capital city’s famous palm-shaped artificial island, you may encounter a man repeating legal texts line by line to himself for hour after hour.
That man is Richard Bernstein, 46, a judge serving on the Michigan Supreme Court. He’s been living in Dubai for two months and counting. And the texts he’s reciting — memorizing in some instances — are court filings from the week’s cases.
Bernstein, who has been visually impaired since birth due to a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, is blind. So he studies his cases by calling his clerks, having them read the filings to him sentence by sentence, then repeating the documents until he’s familiar enough with them to form an opinion.
His walks, which are often as long as 32 kilometers (20 miles), can take six hours, with Bernstein traversing the nearly 11-kilometer (7-mile) boardwalk multiple times. The court convenes on Wednesdays, when it can hear up to 26 cases in one day.
“If I am reviewing a murder case, it will be a three-week transcript which can’t work in Braille,” Bernstein said in an interview over local delicacies outside the five-star Atlantis Hotel, where he is staying. “I internalize these cases, not word by word, but to know all the key legal issues that are relevant within that case.”
He added, “The Palm’s crescent is like a runway without obstacles, so I have my phone and cane to navigate while focusing on my work assignment at the same time.”
Usually Bernstein, a Democrat who was elected to an eight-year term in 2014, would be doing this work from Lansing, Michigan’s capital. But in January he quarantined in Dubai for two weeks on his way to Israel for a visit. During that time Israel closed its borders, and Bernstein was told he could either stay in Dubai or fly home.
He chose to stay in Dubai — and has no immediate plans to leave. With the court meeting virtually due to COVID, he doesn’t need to, despite the eight-hour time difference. He’s even taken both doses of a COVID vaccine there.
“I had already started becoming close with so many incredible people here and so I decided to stay back,” he said. “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. So many people have helped me around here that I know this area like the back of my hand.”
Walking 32 kilometers a day is not a challenge for Bernstein, an avid runner who has competed in 22 marathons and the full Ironman triathlon. In 2012, a cyclist crashed into him in New York City’s Central Park, leaving him with a broken hip and pelvis, and landing him in the hospital for 10 weeks.
Bernstein walks now because he says it hurts less to be in motion. He appreciates that the UAE officially refers to people with disabilities as “people of determination,” a term coined in 2016.
“I absolutely love this expression,” he said. “We should no longer use the word disability but people of determination, and I can’t think of any better description.”
Growing up, Bernstein fought for disability rights in school and continued to do so throughout his career. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, a school he later took to court because its football stadium, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, did not have adequate accommodations for people with disabilities. When he applied to law school at Northwestern, he refused to take the LSAT…