Twenty years ago, Hillsdale County Circuit Court Judge Michael Smith sentenced Robert VanSumeren to 70-240 months in prison for robbery. This November, Smith showed everyone the meaning of a second chance by swearing in the 40-year-old as the county’s 169th attorney.
Joined by his wife, Dana, his two sons, and his sponsor, Marie Reimers, VanSumeren has officially completed his unbelievable redemption story, which began on the wrong side of Judge Smith’s courtroom all the way back in 1999. After his parents split up during his teenage years, VanSumeren turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain. Unfortunately, those vices led to same damaging decisions, including robbing a gas station with a BB gun. Following an unarmed bank robbery, VanSumeren found himself in front of Judge Smith, who sent the newly convicted felon to prison.
Spending six years behind bars taught VanSumeren a valuable lesson and inspired him to turn his life around. Upon his release in 2005, the formerly troubled teen showed he would not squander a second chance at success. VanSumeren studied hard and earned a bachelors degree from Western Michigan University in 2006 before finishing up his masters in 2009. Yet, that wasn’t enough for the former inmate.
“Even as I started working on my bachelor’s and master’s in humanities, law kept floating back through my mind, but the obstacle was I didn’t know if I could make it,” he said.
In 2015, VanSumeren began his law degree at Wayne State University. While enrolled, he ironically learned from the same federal prosecutors and former judges who he detested back in his teenage years. Despite self-doubt about whether he should be open about his past, the father of two came to realize that he had to embrace all aspects of his story in order to move forward in his quest to become an attorney.
“In the community of people who have had legal troubles but have gone on to be professionals, there’s a debate about whether to disclose or not to disclose, to kind of go on with your life or talk about it,” he said. “I’ve chosen to talk about it and tell my story, and when people find out they’ve generally been very supportive.”
VanSumeren earned his law degree in early 2018 before passing the bar exam in July of that same year. However, he still had another significant hurdle to pass: getting the approval of the Character and Fitness Committee. After a lengthy process, the committee gave its blessing and recommended VanSumeren for approval to join the State Bar of Michigan.
His journey from inmate to attorney would not have been possible without the support of Reimers. Now a staff attorney at Lakeshore Legal Aid, Reimers befriended VanSumeren during their first year of law school. She commends her former classmate for his perseverance and believes he is a great example for others to follow.
“It takes a lot of courage to go to law school and pass the bar exam knowing that there’s something in your past from when you were 19 that might keep you from becoming an attorney,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him.”
Judge Smith echoed Reimers’ sentiments for Hillsdale County’s newest attorney, stating that VanSumeren should be commended for his turnaround. That reaction is obviously rare in any courthouse, so let this case show you that it is never too late to write a redemption story.