Monday, September 18, 2023
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Embattled St. Louis circuit attorney out amid increasing political, legal pressure

Kim Gardner was facing a legal attempt by the Missouri attorney general to oust her from office, a contempt charge from a St. Louis City judge, and a possible law being debated in the Legislature that would strip her of power.

ST. LOUIS (CN) — After months of vowing to fight to stay in power, embattled St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner announced Thursday afternoon she will step down June 1.

Gardner, a progressive Democrat, made the announcement in a letter sent to Republican Governor Mike Parson. Gardner did not mention the turmoil surrounding her office, but instead blamed a measure pending in the Legislature that would strip her of most of her powers.

“The most powerful weapon I have to fight back against these outsiders stealing your voices and your rights is to step back,” Gardner said in the letter. “I took this job to serve the people of the city of St. Louis, and that's still my north star.”

Gardner has been defending a legal attempt from Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey to remove her from office as well as a pending criminal contempt case filed by a St. Louis City judge against her and an assistant for repeatedly failing to appear in an assault case.

For years, Gardner has faced criticism for understaffing and dysfunction in her office. Those issues reached a boiling point in February after a burglary suspect who was supposed to be on house arrest crashed a speeding car into a Tennessee teenager visiting the city for a volleyball tournament, resulting in the amputation of both of her legs.

Bailey, a Republican, filed a lawsuit on Feb. 23 seeking Gardner's removal. Bailey claims Gardner’s office has repeatedly failed to prosecute criminal cases, failed to inform and confer with victims, and has refused to exercise judgment to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Yesterday, a special prosecutor was assigned to pursue contempt charges against Gardner and her now former assistant, Christopher Desilets. The appointment came after Circuit Judge Michael Noble said this past week that he would appoint a special prosecutor and called Gardner’s office a "rudderless ship of chaos” that forces attorneys to handle untenable caseloads. Noble also suggested Gardner and Desilets were guilty of indirect criminal contempt after Desilets didn't show up for a scheduled trial and a subsequent hearing this week.

But even in her resignation, Gardner still contends those attacks are politically motivated.

“Unfortunately, since the time I took office, as the first Black, female prosecutor in the state, people outside of the city have targeted me and, to advance their goals, have also targeted the fundamental rights of the city’s voters,” Gardner wrote. “In recent days, for example, The Missouri State Legislature began hearings on a bill that appears to permanently remove the right of every St. Louis voter to elect their Circuit Attorney, the only remaining elected position in our city’s criminal justice system. Instead, the bill gives the governor the power to appoint our city’s chief prosecutor. It is hard to think of a more direct or brutal assault on our democracy, one that mirrors the attacks in Jackson, Mississippi, and throughout Florida.” (Emphasis in original.)

Bailey is not happy that Gardner will remain in office for the rest of the month.

“There is absolutely no reason for the Circuit Attorney to remain in office until June 1st,” Bailey said in a statement. “We remain undeterred with our legal quest to forcibly remove her from office. Every day she remains puts the city of St. Louis in more danger. How many victims will there be between now and June 1st? How many defendants will have their constitutional rights violated? How many cases will continue to go unprosecuted?”

Gardner’s office has faced mass defections amid the controversy. Attorney Alex Polta left on Friday and Desilets announced his resignation Monday. Nearly one-third of Gardner’s office have left since Bailey’s filing in February.

The defections have left an already short staff to handle thousands of criminal and child support cases in the city.

Governor Parson will appoint a successor to fill out the rest of Gardner's term, which runs through 2024.

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