A few months ago, I wrote about a public backlash among some conservative pundits and politicians to hiring formerly incarcerated people. But both sides of the political binary have more in common than they’d like to admit. This subject is unfortunately no exception.
For the latest example, we can look to Michigan, where a Democratic jurist on the state’s highest court went on a press tour this week to lambast his colleague’s decision to hire an ex-convict as a law clerk.
Pete Martel, who was brought on by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kyra Harris Bolden, has since resigned as a result. It’s another reminder that there is often bipartisan consensus opposed to redemption for the formerly incarcerated, no matter how dramatically they’ve turned their lives around.
At 19 years old, Martel robbed a convenience store and shot at police. (No one was hurt.) He pleaded guilty in 1994 to armed robbery and assault with intent to do great bodily harm for which he served 14 years in prison, the majority in solitary confinement. “There was some point along there, or maybe a series of points, where I had matured enough and was slowed down enough and restrained enough, that I had to stop and think about what I’d done and the effects that I’d had on other people,” he said in a 2017 interview with the American Friends Service Committee Michigan Criminal Justice Program, during which he described a troubled adolescence. “And then it really started to click.”
Martel graduated from law school post-release. Justice Richard Bernstein, also of the Michigan Supreme Court, was not swayed. “I know what people are going to say: That he did his 14 years and served his debt to society, and I’m good with that,” Bernstein told The Detroit News. “I’m all about rehabilitation. I’m a Democrat, but I’m also intensely pro-law enforcement, and this is a slap in the face to every police officer in Michigan.”
Bernstein is entitled to his opinion. But it’s a strange position for a judge to stake out, particularly if he believes in the tenets of the system he has dedicated his life to upholding—one in which criminal defendants are supposedly encouraged to better themselves behind bars so they can become productive members of society. I’d posit it’s better than the alternative, where the formerly incarcerated may re-offend, putting communities at risk, because they find themselves excluded from public life despite having paid for their crimes. Ninety-five percent of state prisoners are eventually released. Any system that cares about public safety would want those people to succeed, no matter how repulsive their past offenses.
An exception is to be made, Bernstein argues. “I’m all about second chances,” he said. “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.”
There are some areas of agreement here. Martel committed a serious crime, and few serious people would argue otherwise. That includes Martel himself, who has very publicly owned his mistakes, disavowed them, and worked to right them, which, in theory, is the picture of a success story in the system to which Bernstein subscribes.
It makes little sense, then, that working in the upper rungs of the legal system would arbitrarily be the untouchable vocation. If you believe in second chances, as Bernstein claims, there would seem to be fewer places more fitting for Martel than the same system that he credits with forcing his life to make a 180-degree turn. Based on Bernstein’s opposition, you might think Martel was still a violently anti-law-enforcement teenager. The converse is true.
Yet what’s most glaring here is that the law is supposed to be objective, and those who apply it impartial. That’s the goal, anyway. So richly ironic is it that Bernstein, a jurist who makes consequential rulings concerning police, would say the quiet part out loud: that the rehabilitation we’re told is paramount to our system is trumped by the fact that he is “intensely pro-law enforcement.” It wasn’t Martel who expressed a view about cops that would unfairly inform his duties as clerk. Bernstein merely invoked a caricature. And while doing so, it was he—the actual justice, with all the power that comes with that—who outed himself as someone who does not care to make nonpartisan decisions, which is his job.
“For a sitting justice to say he is ‘intensely pro-law enforcement’…ought to be every bit as outrageous as if he had said he is ‘intensely anti-law enforcement,'” writes Radley Balko at his independent publication, The Watch. “He has made it about as clear as someone can that when he hears these cases, he’ll have a thumb on the scale.”
As for Bernstein’s relationship with his new colleague, Justice Bolden, he is “no longer talking to her,” he told The Detroit News. “We don’t share the same values….We campaigned together, but that was the [Democratic] Party’s doing.” That makes sense, as Bernstein’s values on this front do not necessarily belong to the Democratic Party. Indeed, they transcend party lines on an issue that, ironically, shouldn’t be remotely partisan.