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Missouri attorney general launches effort to remove St. Louis prosecutor from office

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, center, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, during a press conference regarding calls for her resignation at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, center, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, during a press conference regarding calls for her resignation at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said Wednesday that he would file paperwork to start the process of removing St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner from office if she did not resign by noon Thursday She did not resign and and called Bailey’s action politically motivated.

Updated at 4:10 p.m. Feb. 23 with comments from Gardner

Calling it a critical moment in the history of the state and for the people of St. Louis, the Missouri attorney general has launched an effort to oust Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner from office.

“This is about the rule of law and justice,” Andrew Bailey said Thursday during a media conference in Jefferson City before filing paperwork to start the process to remove Gardner. “Prosecutors are charged with holding wrongdoers accountable under the criminal code. Prosecutors who fail to do that aren’t doing their job.”

Gardner called Bailey an “unelected individual who wants to use politics to stop the voice of the people in the city of St. Louis.”

“It’s nothing more than voter suppression,” Gardner said to loud applause In a brief speech to a vocal group of supporters at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

Bailey dismissed any idea that he was motivated by politics.

“This is about the rule of law and about justice. Instead of protecting victims, which is her obligation, she's creating more victims by neglect in office.”

For the first time since the story broke, Gardner took some responsibility for the fact that a man who seriously injured a teenage girl in a car crash was on the streets instead of having his bond revoked after numerous violations.

“While it is true my office could have done more, to say we did nothing is not only disingenuous but is willfully ignorant of the reality of our court system,” she said.

The filing was expected — Bailey, who was appointed to fill the term of U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, said Wednesday he would take such a step if Gardner did not resign by noon Thursday. She did not resign and has scheduled a press conference for Thursday afternoon to address the situation.

Andrew Bailey, newly appointed Missouri Attorney General, gives remarks after being sworn in on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Andrew Bailey, newly appointed Missouri Attorney General, gives remarks after being sworn in on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.

The move by Bailey is the latest fallout from missteps by Gardner’s office that led to events that culminated in 17-year-old Janae Edmonson of Tennessee losing her legs in a car crash over the weekend.

Daniel Riley, 21, was charged Jan. 17 in a 2020 armed robbery. Circuit Judge David Roither released him on his own recognizance but required GPS monitoring for house arrest. On Saturday, Riley sped through a stop sign in downtown and collided with another car, police said. Edmondson, who was in town for a volleyball tournament and was walking back to her hotel with her family, was pinned between two of the cars and later had to have both legs amputated.

In a timeline released by her office, Gardner said she had previously asked for bond revocation in 2021, after she first filed charges. Those charges were dropped and later refiled after the first judge refused to grant a delay in the trial, and there is no indication in court records that her office made a similar request in the second case.

Gardner said Thursday that she had made oral motions for changes, but it was not clear if she was discussing the original armed robbery case in front of Judge Byran Hettenbach, or the current armed robbery case.

Riley faces multiple charges involving Edmondson’s injuries and is currently held without bond. A hearing to review the conditions of his detention is set for Monday.

The filing

Bailey's filing makes three basic claims about Gardner’s alleged dereliction of duty: that she allowed cases to languish, leading to charges being dropped for failure to prosecute; did not to keep in touch with the families of victims to tell them about her decisions or the outcome of cases, and did not file charges on cases brought to her by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

“These three behaviors constitute a continued pattern of failure to discharge her duties in office and represent neglect under the statute and warrant removal,” Bailey said. “We will continue to push forward and expedite a resolution in this case pursuant to the court process.”

Once a judge is assigned, the case will proceed like a civil trial. Gardner will have the opportunity to defend herself, and the judge would ultimately determine, after holding hearings, if she should be forced to vacate the office. Like any court ruling, it could be appealed.

If Gardner is ousted or decides to resign, Gov. Mike Parson will appoint her replacement. Parson said Thursday he agrees with calls for Gardner to resign.

“We are public servants. We’re elected officials. All of us are. I am. They are,” Parson said Thursday. “And if you say you're going to do your job and take an oath to that, you should be doing that very thing.”

Parson said he would consult with Mayor Tishaura Jones and other city leaders to pick a replacement. Jones was among city leaders criticizing Gardner on Wednesday.

Parson, a Republican, does not have to pick a Democrat to replace Gardner. But a Republican candidate would likely not win an election in 2024 because the city is heavily Democratic.

NAACP, police react

The NAACP of St. Louis said that the calls for Gardner’s resignation from Bailey, Parson and Republican legislative leaders were “unwarranted.”

The offices are “being subjected to conjecture and manipulation which has no place in how either office conducts its business,” said NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association, which has long clashed with Gardner’s office, applauded Bailey’s move.

“Unfortunately, Janae isn’t the first victim who has been affected by Kim Gardner’s failures as Circuit Attorney, but hopefully she will be the last,” the union’s president, Jay Schroeder, said in a statement. “We want to thank Attorney General Andrew Bailey for having the courage to stand up to Kim Gardner and finally take her to task for years of incompetence.”

Quo warranto in Missouri

Quo warranto — “by what authority” in Latin — gives the Missouri attorney general or a prosecuting attorney the authority to act “in case any person shall usurp, intrude into or unlawfully hold or execute any office.”

Though no clear data exists showing how often quo warranto motions have been filed, it’s an unusual action, what’s known in legal parlance as an extraordinary writ.

Bailey acknowledged the rarity and said he wished he did not have to take such a step.

“However, the rule of law and justice demand that action be taken to hold Kim Gardner accountable for her failure to discharge her ethical, moral and legal obligations,” he said.

Chuck Hatfield, a longtime attorney in Jefferson City, said he remembered filing quo warranto motions at least once a year when he was in the attorney general’s office. But most of the time, he said, it was because elected officials did something they weren’t supposed to do, such as hire a relative.

In 2009, then-Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, attempted to oust a prosecutor in Dent County, near Rolla. The prosecutor, Jessica Sparks, resigned before the case proceeded.

Joe Dandurand, now an attorney and mediator in the Kansas City area, was the assistant attorney general assigned to the Sparks case. The prosecutor, he said, specifically told commissioners that she would not file criminal cases unless they increased her budget. He said the filing from Bailey against Gardner seemed unusual because it appeared to lack a knowing or willful refusal to carry out her duties.

But Dandurand added that he had not seen the evidence Bailey planned to present to the judge.

Activists in 2015 attempted to use a different type of quo warranto to force then-St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch from office over his handling of the Darren Wilson grand jury. A judge rejected that attempt.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Statehouse reporter Sarah Kellogg contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio

Lippmann returned to her native St. Louis after spending two years covering state government in Lansing, Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and followed (though not directly) in Maria Altman's footsteps in Springfield, also earning her graduate degree in public affairs reporting. She's also done reporting stints in Detroit, Michigan and Austin, Texas. Rachel likes to fill her free time with good books, good friends, good food, and good baseball.
Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.
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