Fight Over St. Louis Bail System Hits Eighth Circuit

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A lawyer for four people who claim they were held in a debtors’ jail in St. Louis argued before an Eighth Circuit panel Thursday that a recent change in bail procedures does not make their case moot.

The new rule, which went into effect July 1, tasked judges with considering nonmonetary conditions of release unless deemed necessary for public safety or to ensure an alleged offender will show up to a scheduled court appearance.

The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, home of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via U.S. General Services Administration)

Arpit K. Garg, representing the plaintiffs, said after the hearing that the rule is a good step, but doesn’t make his clients’ the case moot. They were held in the St. Louis city jail for months before trial because they couldn’t afford bail.

“They have to demonstrate convincingly that those practices aren’t there and our argument is they haven’t done that,” he said.

Garg, of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP in Washington D.C., argued that the 22nd Circuit in Missouri, which covers St. Louis, systematically violated his clients’ constitutional rights.

“The problem here is the way the state courts handled this,” Garg said in an interview. “They tell everyone you need a lawyer to go through any of the state processes and it takes a month to get a lawyer. We’re talking about indigent people here. They are going to need a public defender and the public defender system…takes time to get someone appointed.”

He added, “And that’s really important here because if you have to wait a month to challenge your bail that means you sit in jail for a month. And the harms that come with being detained while you’re awaiting trial, all of that starts to happen really quickly. People lose their job, people lose their access to their children, they start having physical harms, they start having emotional harms, all of these things happen fairly quickly.”

Robert H. Dierker represented the city and Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer represented the judges named in the lawsuit. They claim an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig closely mirrored the bail rule handed down by the Missouri Supreme Court.

“The new Supreme Court rules make it very clear that the state courts have to conduct much more particularized hearings on bail setting both to begin with and then down the road,” Dierker said after the hearing. “So the Missouri Supreme Court has laid out very precise guidelines for the state courts to follow and it made it very explicit to what has to be done and it’s almost identical to what Judge Fleissig ordered. The situation is completely altered because there is no reason to think that the state judges will not follow the Supreme Court.”

Garg argued before the three-judge Eighth Circuit panel that the local court’s history and its defense of its actions are proof that there is no guarantee it will follow the rule. He even argued that transcripts show Sauer admitted that the court had made no preparations to follow the rule.

Sauer replied during rebuttal that he simply was unprepared to answer the question at the time because the conversation in question had taken place during a status conference that he had very little time to prepare for.

“The presiding judge of the 22nd Circuit told me they been planning,” Dierker said in an interview. “There were committees studying how to deal with it … the reality then and now must be that bail hearings are going to be much more thorough.”

The state also argued that the injunction was an end-around tactic. They claimed that since the plaintiffs couldn’t get an injunction against the judges, they went after the warden who was just following orders.

“The federal courts don’t sit as nannies for the state courts,” Dierker said in an interview. “The federal courts, if they have a situation where it’s kind of a one-and-done thing, they deal with it and that’s the end of it. You don’t have this ongoing supervision.”

But Garg said the kind of injunction issued in the case is common.

“As a practical matter this kind of injunction has been around for 100 years, and there’s a special doctrine that most federal judges are familiar with that’s called ex parte young that says actually we do this all the time.” he said in an interview. “We sue the person enforcing the law because frequently you can’t sue the person who caused it.”

Thursday’s three-judge panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Ralph R. Erickson and Jonathan A. Kobes, both appointees of President Donald Trump, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Michael J. Melloy, a George W. Bush appointee. There is no timetable for a ruling.

Bail reform has become a hot button topic in Missouri after the Ferguson protests stemming from the police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2014. The lawsuit debated Thursday is one of several that have been filed against St. Louis and surrounding municipalities claiming they run debtors’ prisons.

One similar but unrelated lawsuit against St. Louis detailed abhorrent conditions inside the city’s medium security jail called The Workhouse. Those plaintiffs claim they were subjected to filthy conditions, including seeing a fellow female prisoner suffer a miscarriage due to the denial of medical treatment and a jail worker get bitten by a snake.

The debate over bail reform intensified in April after a nonprofit group called The Bail Project, which provides bail for those with financial need, bailed out Samuel Scott after he spent five days in jail on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for hitting his wife, Marcia Johnson. Hours after his release, Scott allegedly brutally beat his wife, who later died from her injuries.

Thursday’s hearing was held before a packed courtroom, with most attendees showing support for cash bail reform.

“We’re really happy to see the level of community interest that was shown in the number of people here today,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy group aiming to fight the criminalization of poverty. “We think that reflects the degrees that people are paying attention to the issue.”

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