Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)
Following a dispute that threatened to upend what had been a promising political alliance, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein on Monday apologized to fellow Justice Kyra Harris Bolden for comments he made regarding her hiring of a clerk who had served prison time for a 1994 robbery in which he fired shots at police.
Both Bolden and Bernstein were nominated by the Michigan Democratic Party in 2022 and campaigned together. While Bernstein won reelection, Bolden, a state lawmaker, finished third. She was then appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for an open slot.
“Today, I apologized to my colleague Justice Kyra Harris Bolden in-person at the Hall of Justice and she has accepted my apology,” said Bernstein’s statement. “I regret overstepping Justice Bolden’s hiring process and should not have disturbed her ability to lead her Chambers.”
In comments made last week to the Detroit News, Bernstein said he was “completely disgusted” by Bolden’s hire of Peter Martel as her clerk, adding that “there are certain jobs you should never be allowed to have after you shoot at a police officer, and one of them is clerking for the highest court in the state. I’m no longer talking to her. We don’t share the same values.”
Martel, 48, earned a law degree following his parole in 2008, worked with the State Appellate Defender Office and was enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan.
However, Martel resigned following Bernstein’s comments, which Bolden accepted.
“He did not want to be a distraction or in any way divert the court from its important work,” she said in a statement. “I respect his decision and do not intend to comment further.”
But others did comment, as criticism of Bernstein came from fellow Michigan Democrats accusing him of improperly interfering with the hiring decision of a fellow justice, especially as Bolden is the first Black female justice in Michigan history.
Criminal justice reform advocates were especially incensed and questioned how Bernstein could be impartial in cases involving law enforcement, given his public comments.
“He was saying he is intensely pro police-officer,” wrote Radley Balko, a former Washington Post opinion columnist who called for Bernstein to resign on his Substack page. “And he said so in order to contrast himself to one of his fellow justices, whose actions he clearly thinks are not only insufficiently deferential to police officers, but were a deliberate effort to signal her hostility to them.”
Even former Chief Justice Bridget McCormack — who Bolden replaced on the bench — defended Martel as one of her best students when she taught at the University of Michigan.
“He’s been open about his past and his regrets about it, and how he’s eager to be an example for others, to show them that you don’t have to be defined by your past,” she said.
In his statement, Bernstein also apologized directly to Martel, and stated his desire to move on from the controversy.
“I would also like to apologize to Mr. Peter Martel. Mr. Martel is not an elected official and my actions invited people into his life in a way that he had not signed up for and he deserved more consideration,” said Bernstein. “I am committed to working with Justice Bolden in the coming years to advance our many shared values, including immediately working to expand opportunities in the legal field for those who have repaid their debts to society.”
However, not everyone was convinced the matter was closed.
“Nothing in Justice Bernstein’s statement accepts accountability for costing someone his job or affirms the critical life experience and value that returning citizens bring to the criminal justice conversation,” tweeted state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia). “This is not an apology.”
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