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Doing the Right Thing

Feb 16, 2016

The news these days is full of examples of where our systems have failed, sometimes disastrously, as in Flint. We have had incompetence and corruption at virtually every level. We should be seeing bumper stickers which say, “if you’re not a cynic, you aren’t paying attention.”

But there are occasional stories of officials striving to do a good job, and there was one last week you may have missed.

Lawrence Talon is a former assistant Wayne County prosecutor who became a judge six years ago. A Wayne County circuit judge, that is, who spends his days presiding over the trials of those accused of felonies.

I don’t think I’ve ever met Judge Talon, though I know he was rated “Outstanding” and “Extremely Well Qualified” by the two main local bar associations.

And last week he did something remarkable. They brought State Senator Virgil Smith Jr. into his courtroom. Nine months ago, Smith was arrested and charged with a string of felonies after he blasted away at his ex-wife’s Mercedes with an automatic rifle on a residential street.

This occurred after a sordid sex triangle. Nobody disputes any of that. Smith, by the way, has never really had much of a career other than the legislature, though he does have a string of shoplifting and alcohol-related convictions. His election was entirely due to the fact that he was preceded by his father, also named Virgil Smith.

That is one of the many negative consequences of term limits. You might have expected that after Smith was charged with multiple felonies, he would have been obliged to resign. That might have happened, in a world where integrity and honor counted, but not here.

Nor did the Democratic Party, of which Smith is nominally a member, even call for his resignation or expulsion. That provided a sad contrast to the Republicans, who drummed out two of their members from the house last year after a bizarre adultery and cover-up scandal.

Democrats even failed to ask Smith to quit when he began voting consistently with Republicans, even on bills that would hurt his Detroit constituents.

Finally, a plea bargain was reached. Smith would plead guilty to one felony and do a few months not in prison, but the county jail. He would also quit the legislature and tell the police what he did with the gun.

This would have enabled the state to hold a special election to replace him. The politicians wanted this. It would have been easy for the judge to accept this deal. But to his credit, Judge Talon refused to rubber-stamp it.

He said he needed to consider it, and indicated he thought Smith might be getting off too easy, saying “public officials are expected to observe high standards of conduct," and noting that behavior like this has eroded public faith in all officials.

The judge will reconvene the hearing March 14. By the way, lawyers on both sides said Smith suffers from mental problems and was being treated for alcohol dependency.

You might think that would be reason enough for Smith to acknowledge there’s no way he can go on pretending to represent his quarter-million constituents and step aside.

But when I suggested that to someone, they said, “but if he did that, he would no longer be getting paid.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.