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Keeping his word

Aug 29, 2017

More than two years ago, in one of state politics’ more sordid recent episodes, State Senator Virgil Smith Jr. was arrested after he shot up his ex-wife’s Mercedes.

According to prosecutors, the Detroit Democrat was “alcohol dependent” at the time, had asked his former wife to come over for an intimate encounter and then physically assaulted her before shooting up her car. It is unclear whether he was trying to shoot her too.

Smith was charged with a string of felonies that could have sent him to prison for a long time. However, he eventually agreed to a plea bargain last year. He agreed to resign his seat and not run again or hold any elective or appointive office for at least five years. In return, the felony charges were dropped, and he got off with 10 months in the county jail.

When that happened, another Detroit politician, former State Representative Rashida Tlaib, was outraged Smith got off so lightly, saying it was due to his connections – his father is a judge – and said, “It’s wrong. And I’m talking as a woman, not as a potential candidate.”

Smith served his time, got out – and immediately decided he wanted to go back on his word and run for Detroit City Council. He found another Wayne County Circuit Judge who said the portion of his plea bargain that required him to resign and not hold office for a period of time was unconstitutional, since it violated the separation of powers clause of the constitution.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy then appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which again found for Smith, in a split decision. Now she is asking the Michigan Supreme Court to take the case. Higher courts are understandably reluctant to override lower courts.

The odds are that Smith will prevail here too, and if so, because of name recognition, he has a pretty good shot at being elected in November, despite a legislative record almost devoid of accomplishment.

But I hope the state’s highest court might look at this in a different way. Nobody forced Smith into a plea bargain. Smith could have rejected the prosecutor’s offer and proclaimed at the time that he didn’t think his being barred from running for office was constitutional or fair.

Had he done so, he might have gotten credit for taking a stand, and might even have still gotten a plea bargain. But he didn’t do that; he voluntarily made the deal and promised not to run. He did so because he knew that if his case had gone to trial, the odds are pretty good that he would today be in a cell in Ionia. Instead, he is a free man.

A free man, who wants to break a promise he made in court. Normally I think that voters should be allowed to elect whomever they want to represent them, regardless.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve always been against term limits. But I also believe that contracts ought to be honored. That’s why I’m going to pay my mortgage this month; that’s how modern society works. Unless human nature drastically changes, it won’t be long before some other politician is hauled into court hoping to make a deal.

If prosecutors say no way, Virgil Smith Jr. may be the reason why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.