Siemon’s work should go on

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Carol Siemon’s decision to step down as Ingham County’s prosecuting attorney with two years left on her four-year term in office is a disheartening way to end the year. We would vastly prefer she continue the good work she started when first elected to the post in 2016. But we respect her choice to pursue whatever path is best for her and wish her well.

Throughout her tenure, Siemon has championed reforms that directly address the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. She’s also been one of those public servants who resolutely stand behind their principles and do exactly what they say they are going to do. In a 2021 editorial, we praised Siemon for reminding us that a few carefully considered actions always speak louder than the thousands of empty words uttered by so many of her peers in public service.

Siemon is unapologetic about the changes she drove in the Prosecutor’s Office. She showed boatloads of moxie when she didn’t back down in the face of withering public criticisms from a cadre of out-county law enforcement officials led by Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth, with support from several other local politicians looking to pander to the “tough on crime” crowd. 

For her efforts — and her troubles — Siemon was honored in May as Peacemaker of the Year by the Lansing Area Peace Education Center. The group cited her efforts “to bring fairness in charging and sentencing criminal defendants (and) worked to ensure that all members of the community, especially those who are disadvantaged, receive fair justice.” Siemon’s unflagging determination to rebalance the scales of justice in Ingham County will be her legacy.

There was a time when we were a bit chafed by Siemon’s dogged defiance of Michigan’s mandatory life sentence for capital murder. We argued that she was overstepping her bounds and suggested she should instead get together with like-minded prosecutors and advocates around the state to campaign for change. We still think that’s a good idea. In the end, despite our disagreement with some of her policies, Siemon’s integrity, grit and fierce adherence to her core principles won us over. 

Her unexpected resignation means a new prosecutor will be named to replace her through next year and the post will be on the November 2023 ballot to elect someone to serve out the remaining year of her term.

Who replaces her till the election will be up to the judges in the 30th District Circuit Court, including Rosemarie Aquilina. Judge Aquilina is one of the public officials who repeatedly chastised Siemon for her tendency to seek lighter punishments for certain criminal defendants. We were disappointed by Aquilina’s harsh public commentary mostly because it was aimed at another strong, progressive woman — the first elected female Ingham County prosecutor —  a colleague and peer who, like the judge, has worked hard to bring fairness, justice and equity to our criminal justice system and to ensure that victims are heard.

Given her strong advocacy for empowering other women, it seems just a bit out of character for Aquilina and makes us wonder if the judge’s strong words are part of a broader agenda. Coupled with her slightly bizarre publicity stunt offering to serve as the next president of Michigan State University — a job for which she has no readily apparent qualifications — we think Aquilina’s public relations machine may be ramping up for something bigger, perhaps a run for elected office or a national TV talk show. 

And, we would be remiss to ignore the whiff of hypocrisy in Aquilina attacking another pubic official for overstepping her legal bounds, given the criticisms leveled against the judge for her extrajudicial comments from the bench during the sentencing of notorious sex offender Larry Nassar. Many cheered her “death sentence” statement — surely it was healing to Nassar’s victims to hear those words out loud — but it came at the risk of giving Nassar an issue to appeal his conviction.

In any case, we hope Aquilina will rediscover her judicial temperament and consider the full scope of the prosecutor’s responsibilities during the process of selecting Siemon’s successor. While we believe the next county prosecutor should be a strong, progressive advocate for victim’s rights and ensuring that survivors are heard, they also need to possess the requisite qualifications for the job. Aquilina’s role in the selection process is to consider the best interests of the people of Ingham County and choose a candidate with the experience to sustain the operational needs of the office. We hope she doesn’t use it as a platform to advance her political or professional aspirations, whatever they may be.

Siemon faithfully did her part to bend the arc of history toward justice. For that, and despite our disagreements, we will always consider her tenure a success and hope her replacement carries forward her relentless commitment to solving the still persistent inequities baked into our criminal justice system.

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