Justice Bernstein’s offense. Many Democrats across the state of Michigan were outraged last month when newly re-elected Michigan Supreme Court justice Richard Bernstein publicly condemned one of the first hiring decisions of the newly appointed Justice Kyra Bolden, the first Black woman to serve on the Court. The WCDP campaigned hard for both of these candidates, featuring them in programs and on the front page of the 2022 Voter Guide. The candidates barnstormed the state together for months, to all appearances enjoying each other’s company.
Mr. Pete Martel. But immediately after Justice Bolden was appointed to the bench by Governor Whitmer, to serve the remainder of retiring Chief Justice Bridget McCormack’s term, Justice Bernstein lashed out at her. He was angered by Justice Bolden’s hiring of attorney Pete Martel as a law clerk. Mr. Martel served 14 years in prison (1994-2008) after being convicted of an armed robbery committed when he was 19 years old in which he fired at pursuing police officers. While in prison, Mr. Martell came to understand the impact of his crimes on others, and began studying law and advising other inmates. When he left prison he enrolled as a law student at Wayne State, worked with the State Appellate Defender Office, and is currently a PhD student in UM’s Ford School Program in Public Policy & Sociology.
When Justice Bernstein heard about Mr. Martel’s hiring, he told a reporter he thought it was “disgusting,” said he was “no longer speaking with” Justice Bolden, said they “don’t share the same values,” and said that he was “intensely pro law enforcement.”
Executive Board response. The Executive Board wrote to Justice Bernstein on January 10 condemning his behavior as juvenile, tainted with racism and sexism, and pernicious in positing a false choice between being “pro law enforcement” and supporting redemption. We reminded Justice Bernstein of the MDP platform statement supporting redemption and compassionate re-entry of formerly incarcerated citizens, and reminded him that many law enforcement personnel and agencies are devoted to redemption and re-entry.
In-person meeting 11 days later. On Saturday, January 21, Justice Bernstein traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with WCDP leaders. In attendance were the WCDP Officers, the Co-chairs of Outreach and Community Engagement (Mary Hall-Thiam and Kathy Wyatt), and leaders of the WCDP Black Caucus (Caroline Sanders) and Eastern Washtenaw Dems (Crystal Lyte).
Follow up. We appreciate Justice Bernstein’s repeated expressions of remorse, and expect meaningful action to follow. We have insisted, in writing, that he begin to learn, to demonstrate understanding, and to earn our re-endorsement by meeting with leaders, themselves formerly incarcerated, of two local organizations supporting re-entry; by actively supporting their work; and by vocally and tirelessly supporting the election of Justice Kyra Bolden in 2024. We are staying in close touch with him to make sure he follows through. We hope that, with these and other actions, Justice Bernstein is able eventually to restore the trust he has so deeply damaged.
The MDP’s platform includes this statement: Democrats believe in redemption. We must deepen our commitment to helping those who have served their time re-enter society, earn a good living, and participate in our democracy as the full citizens they are. . . . Continuing to punish a person after they have rejoined the community is both cruel and counterproductive.