On July 8th, 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court released its opinion in Paquin v City of St Ignace, ___ Mich ___ (2019)(Docket No. 156823) holding that a political candidate is not barred from seeking elective office in Michigan by the state constitution even if that candidate has a prior felony conviction stemming from his service as a member on the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Board of Directors and as the tribal chief of police.
Plaintiff Fred Paquin sought to become a candidate for a seat on the St. Ignace City Council for the 2013 and 2015 election. However, the city manager denied his placement on the ballot both times, citing his previous felony conviction made him constitutionally ineligible. Mr. Paquin is a member of the federal recognized Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and served as both a board member and the chief of police. During his service, Mr. Paquin was convicted of a single count of conspiracy to defraud the United States by dishonest means (18 U.S.C. 371) and was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. The Michigan Constitution, Article 11, §8 has the following provision:
- “A person is ineligible for election or appointment to any state or local elective office of this state and ineligible to hold a position in public employment in this state that is policy-making or that has discretionary authority over public assets if, within the immediately preceding 20 years, the person was convicted of a felony involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud, or a breach of the public trust and the conviction was related to the person’s official capacity while the person was holding any elective office or position of employment in local, state, or federal government. This requirement is in addition to any other qualification required under this constitution or by law.”
Relying on this constitutional provision and a formal Attorney General opinion stating that this “applies to a person convicted of a crime based that person’s conduct as a governmental employee or elected official of a federally recognized Indian Tribe” (OAG, 2013-2014, No. 7273, p. 30, August 15, 2013), the city manager refused to list the Plaintiff on the ballot. Mr. Paquin filed a declaratory action in circuit court seeking an order that the constitutional provision did not apply to him and the Attorney General’s opinion was incorrect. The Attorney General intervened in support of the City of St. Ignace and participated in the proceedings. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants and dismissed the complaint. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed and held that the Tribe qualifies as a “local government” under the Michigan Constitution so his felony made him ineligible to run for office.
Plaintiff appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. The sole question before the justices is whether or not the phrase “local, state or federal government” in Article 11, §8 of the Michigan Constitution applies to federally-recognized Indian tribes?
It is obvious that an Indian tribe cannot be a “federal” government” (that term is reserved for the United States government) or a “state” government” (that term is reserved for one of the fifty states admitted to the Union). Is it a “local” government? Federally-recognized Indian tribes enter into treaties with the United States where they exist as domestically dependent nations but exercise inherent sovereign authority over their members and territories. A true “local government” is a county, city, township or village that is wholly a subdivision of the state that it exists in. This unique treaty relationship is what distinguishes tribal governments from other subnational political entities. Tribes might look like local governments and act like local governments, but the fact that the tribes retain “the right to self-governance” via treaty does NOT make them local governments.
Since a federally recognized Indian tribe is not a federal, state or local government under Article 11, §8 of the Michigan Constitution, a felony conviction arising from tribal public service does not invalidate Mr. Paquin’s candidacy for city council. Therefore, the Michigan Supreme Court declared that the circuit court should have permitted Mr. Paquin’s addition to the ballot.
This decision reflects that courts will follow the plain language of the law to determine whether an individual is eligible to participate in an election, not political considerations. The voters are free to make a decision at the ballot box whether or not they believe a particular candidate is suitable for office. This is a hallmark of fair and free elections in both the State of Michigan and the United States.