White jurist apologizes to Michigan’s first Black Supreme Court justice for his hiring comments

Justice Richard Bernstein called it "a political statement" and "a step too far" for Kyra Harris Bolden to hire Peter Martel, who served time in prison decades ago, as a clerk.

A Michigan Supreme Court jurist has apologized to his colleague Kyra Harris Bolden, the state’s first Black Supreme Court justice, for his comments regarding her decision to hire a clerk with criminal convictions.

According to The Detroit News, Richard Bernstein, who was elected justice as a Democratic nominee — and with whom Bolden campaigned last year — said it was “a political statement” and “a step too far” for her to hire Peter Martel, who fired shots at police during a robbery that landed him in prison for 14 years nearly three decades ago.

“I’m not saying (Martel) shouldn’t be allowed to make a living, and I’m all about second chances,” Bernstein said, according to The News. “But 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.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein called it a “political statement” and “a step too far” for fellow jurist Kyra Harris Bolden to hire Peter Martel, who fired shots at police during the commission of a robbery that landed him in prison nearly 30 years ago. (Photo: Gillis Benedict/Livingston Daily)

In 1994, Martel pleaded guilty to armed robbery and assault to cause serious bodily harm after robbing a convenience store and firing at a police officer. He was granted parole in 2008, and since then attended law school at Wayne State University and a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, Michigan Radio reported, before working to improve prison conditions.

He resigned from Bolden’s office a day after Bernstein’s public criticism.

Some criminal defense lawyers and supporters of those formerly incarcerated criticized Bernstein for his remarks about Martel, who served as a mitigation specialist assisting convicted offenders with legal issues for the State Appellate Defender Office before being hired by Bolden.

Richard Bernstein, Kyra Harris Bolden
Chief Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement administers the oath of office to (from left) Brian Zahra, Kyra Harris Bolden and Richard Bernstein during the gubernatorial inauguration at the state Capitol on Jan. 1, 2023. Bernstein has apologized to Bolden, Michigan’s first Black Supreme Court justice, for criticizing her decision to hire a clerk who had served prison time. (Photo: Robert Killips/Lansing State Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Former Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack defended her successor’s choice to hire Martel, saying there isn’t anything in the justice system that people should respect more than helping those successful at redemption.

“He’s been open about his past and his regrets about it,” McCormack told The News, “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.” 

McCormack added that she wished she had hired Martel, whom she taught at the University of Michigan in 2017–18.

Martel’s clerkship responsibilities included analyzing cases, doing legal research, creating oral argument questions and producing preliminary versions of justices’ decisions.

Bernstein said in a statement on Monday that he apologized to Bolden in person in Lansing and sought to apologize to Martel publicly. He added that Martel deserved more consideration, pointing out that the now-former clerk is not an elected official. The justice conceded that his own actions brought people into Martel’s life “in a way that he had not signed up for.”

“I am committed to working with Justice Bolden in the coming years to advance our many shared values,” Bernstein added, The News reported, “including immediately working to expand opportunities in the legal field for those who have repaid their debts to society.”

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