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Judges typically don't like to see anyone they have sentenced to prison return to their courtroom - it usually involves issuing another sentence. But for Robert VanSumeren, a return visit before the judge who sent him to prison over 20 years ago was cause for celebration. After serving his time, VanSumeren went to college, then law school, then passed the bar. The return to Michigan state court judge Michael Smith's courtroom was to get sworn in to the bar.
The Washington Post has coverage, quoting VanSumeren as saying that while he wasn't after the limelight, he felt it was important to share his story. Success stories involving convicted felons are unfortunately rare. While licensed attorneys getting into legal trouble themselves appears on the news with frequency, going from felon to attorney is not something we hear about regularly.
At the ceremony Judge Smith, usually formalistic, encouraged everyone in the courtroom to applaud VanSumeren, according to the Post.
VanSumeren went through some difficult times when younger. Homeless at 18 years old after his parents divorced, he ended up owing money and using drugs. That led to further mistakes, including robbing a store and a bank. Within 24 hours of robbing a bank (while unarmed) he was arrested.
He went to community college after being released after six years with the help of some former teachers, got married and had children. Unfortunately, he again fell into substance use issues to deal with his anxiety and trouble finding work. He went to rehab for alcohol use, began his life in recovery and realized he needed to work hard to become the kind of person he wanted to be. He enrolled in Wayne State University's law school in 2015, graduated, and passed the bar on his first try in July, 2018.
He currently has a job as corporate counsel for a nonprofit organization.
The State Bar of Michigan's Character and Fitness Committee investigated VanSumeren at length, ultimately finding him fit to practice. State bars have begun to re-think the character and fitness component of the bar application process, many of which contain vague and inconsistent standards that present a roadblock to aspiring attorneys such as VanSumeren. And the character and fitness component may provide a deterrent for law students to seek help while in law school.
While a good example for anyone who made a serious mistake when young, VanSumeren's story should also help law students understand that mental health issues, including substance abuse, do not disqualify aspiring attorneys from practicing law – so long as they get help and turn things around.