Justice to keynote law school commencement


Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein will deliver the keynote address at Wayne State University Law School’s Commencement on Monday, May 15.

During the ceremony, the university will award an honorary doctor of laws degree to Albie Sachs, former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and human rights activist.

The ceremony, open to graduates and their guests, will be at the Detroit Opera House. Tickets are required.

Bernstein is the first blind justice elected to the Michigan Supreme Court. He began his eight-year term in January 2015. Prior to being elected to Michigan’s highest court, Bernstein was known as a tireless advocate for disabled rights as an attorney heading the public service division for The Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills.

Among his cases in private practice, Bernstein represented the Paralyzed Veterans of America in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice in an action against the University of Michigan to allow for safe access for disabled individuals. When the university’s alterations to its stadium failed to accommodate and represent disabled visitors, the case helped establish guidelines that are used across the country by all commercial facilities. Bernstein successfully partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice to force the city of Detroit to fix broken wheelchair lifts on its buses, establishing a precedent for accessibility in public transportation.

In a landmark settlement against Delta Airlines and Detroit Metro Airport, Bernstein gained accessibility for disabled flyers. This helped set the standard for which airlines and airports are to be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bernstein is a proponent of education and has argued for and won preservation of special education funding throughout Michigan.

Bernstein previously served an eight-year term on Wayne State University’s Board of Governors, and was chair from 2009-10. He also served as an adjunct professor in the political science department at the University of Michigan. Bernstein is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan and earned his law degree from Northwestern University School of Law.

Sachs’ career in human rights activism started at the age of seventeen as a second-year law student in South Africa. Sachs took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Three years later he attended the Congress of the People at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted. At 21, he started practice as an advocate at The Cape Bar. The bulk of his work involved defending people charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws. Many faced a death sentence. Sachs was raided by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting his movement and eventually placed in solitary confinement without trial for two prolonged spells of detention.

Sachs went into exile in 1966. After spending eleven years studying and teaching law in England, he worked for another eleven years in Mozambique as a law professor and legal researcher. In 1988, Sachs lost an arm and vision in one eye after a bomb that was placed in his car by South African security agents exploded.

While in exile, Sachs worked closely with the leader of the African National Congress and helped draft the organization’s Code of Conduct and statutes. After recovering from the bombing, he devoted himself full-time to preparations for a new democratic Constitution for South Africa. He returned to South Africa in 1990 and as a member of the Constitutional Committee and the National Executive of the African National Congress, took an active part in the negotiations which led to South Africa becoming a constitutional democracy. After the first democratic election in 1994, Sachs was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to serve on the newly established Constitutional Court.

In addition to Sachs’ work on the court, he has travelled to many countries sharing South African experience in healing divided societies. He also has been engaged in the sphere of art and architecture, and played an active role in the development of the Constitutional Court building and its art collection on the site of the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg.

Sachs earned an LL.B. and B.A. from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a Ph.D. from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. He also is the recipient of 21 honorary degrees.