(NOTE: Safe & Just Michigan is nonpartisan and doesn’t make political endorsements. Ronnie Waters, our community engagement specialist, is speaking about his own personal endorsement of Justice Richard Bernstein.)

SJM Community Engagement Specialist Ronnie Waters (left) with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein in the summer of 2022.

When Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein asked me to support his re-election campaign in the summer of 2022, I was quick to do it. Justice Bernstein demonstrated his understanding and commitment to criminal justice reform by writing a concurring decision on the recent People v. Parks case, which raised the age of who is considered a juvenile in Michigan. These kinds of decisions will allow men and women the chance to convince a judge that they have transformed their lives and earned a second chance at freedom. Many of these people have been behind bars for over 30 years. The Michigan Department of Corrections considers the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters to be model prisoners. Freedom is not guaranteed for any of these new juveniles, just the opportunity to show real remorse for their victims and demonstrate to the court that they are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.

I care a lot about second chances, because just two years ago, I was given one myself. Now that I’m out, my daily work with Safe & Just Michigan allows me to advocate for all the rehabilitated souls I left behind.

Back before the election, what enhanced Justice Bernstein’s standing in my eyes was his enthusiastic support for Supreme Court candidate Kyra Bolden, who is now the first African-American woman to sit on Michigan’s Supreme Court bench. Justice Bolden again made history when she hired Pete Martel, a friend and a formerly incarcerated man (who has earned a law degree) the opportunity to clerk in her office. But that didn’t sit well with Justice Bernstein, who had just become the justice of the court.  When Mr. Bernstein was told of this hire, he said that while he is “all about second chances,” people like Pete or myself will never be good enough to work for the Supreme Court, and that he and Justice Bolden didn’t share the same values. These disgusting comments overshadowed history-making moments, and his blatant disrespect of a woman many people in my community consider a role model shook us to our foundation.

It wasn’t just me who felt like this was a personal insult. Friends from all over the state of Michigan, many of them formerly impacted by the justice system, raised our voices in a chorus of condemnation. Even observers out-of-state took note and weighed in on what they saw as a justice carrying out an injustice.

I really do understand the anguish felt by many citizens over Justice Bernstein’s comments. I feel that anguish deep down in my core. However, I am a strong believer in second chances for everyone who wants to do better. That’s why I, along with some other criminal justice reform advocates, asked for a meeting with Justice Bernstein to hear straight from the mouth of the person responsible for making controversial remarks.

I understand that there wasn’t space for everyone to take part in these conversations, so I’d like to tell you a little more about what happened at these meetings and why I still support Justice Bernstein.

In the first meeting with the Bernstein team, which lasted over four hours, the atmosphere was really intense and none of the participants held back. We all wanted Justice Bernstein to feel the full force of our pain. To his credit, he was fully engaged apologizing over and over for the many mistakes that he had made. He strongly felt that the media had misquoted him, nevertheless he took full responsibility for everything that has happened and sincerely wanted to make amends.

I found him to be remorseful and deeply ashamed by his actions. He told us that this was by far the worst thing he had ever done and asked for our forgiveness. After over four hours of sitting on a red-hot stove and not ducking any questions, I found Justice Richard Bernstein to be creditable and worthy of a second chance.

This is what I emphasize to a group of concerned citizens from my community. A few of them are still demanding that Justice Bernstein resign.

As we all know, particularly impacted people, second chances go hand-in-hand with accountability. Justice Bernstein knows we will be carefully watching his judicial record, curious to see if he truly is “intensely pro-law enforcement” or whether he will listen and judge both sides of a case impartially.

Again, I was deeply hurt by what Justice Bernstein said but I have empathy for him as he finds himself in our own shoes: he has his second chance; now it’s up to him to make the most of it.

~Ronnie Waters
Community Engagement Specialist