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How Kim Gardner’s future in office could shake up Missouri politics and policy

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner 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 on Thursday during a press conference regarding calls for her resignation.

Just two weeks ago, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner stepped before a row of microphones at a St. Louis courthouse after one of the biggest successes of her tenure.

Several hours earlier, a judge set Lamar Johnson free — backing Gardner’s yearslong push to vacate the St. Louis man’s murder sentence. After years of criticism about how she managed her office, Gardner took a moment to bask in the legal victory.

“We showed that the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri is about justice — and not defending the finality of a conviction,” Gardner said.

But a little more than a week later, the accolades for Gardner had faded away rapidly.

The Democrat is facing the biggest crisis of her six years as the elected city prosecutor after a man who had violated house arrest numerous times, Daniel Riley, seriously injured 17-year-old Janae Edmondson in a car crash.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey is now trying to oust Gardner from office.

In the same building where Johnson was freed, Gardner convened a press conference that quickly turned chaotic when her supporters shouted down reporters. While she conceded that her office could have done a better job in the Riley case, Gardner dismissed calls for her resignation and made it clear she wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

“There are numerous individuals who have an agenda to make sure my office does not succeed,” Gardner said. “That is not an excuse. But at the same time, we know we don’t control every part of the system. But what we can control is we’re going to fight very hard in spite of the vitriol, the hate, the racist attacks.”

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives mingle on Jan. 4 before the start of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers are mulling whether to let Gov. Mike Parson appoint a special prosecutor to handle violent crimes in the city of St. Louis. It's a bill targeting Kim Gardner's leadership.

Gardner’s tenure could affect trajectory of special prosecutor legislation

Before the Riley case prompted a political firestorm, lawmakers were moving a bill through the Missouri General Assembly allowing the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to handle certain crimes.

While the legislation could hypothetically affect any Missouri county, supporters of the idea made no secret that it was directed at Gardner. For years, Republicans and Democrats sharply criticized Gardner’s management of the circuit attorney’s office — pointing to a backlog of cases, inability to follow the Sunshine law and chronic understaffing.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the Missouri House said Rep. Lane Roberts’ bill would lose momentum if Gardner decided to step down and Gov. Mike Parson appointed a successor.

“I would think the bill at that point would not have the impetus behind it,” said House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres. “The governor would be able to take care of the situation and remedy that.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade agreed that Gardner’s departure could slow down the special prosecutor legislation. But Quade, D-Springfield, added that her caucus is seeing lots of bills “specifically targeting the city of St. Louis.”

“Will it slow down the attack on the city of St. Louis, that specific bill? It might,” Quade said. “But I think it might be for a moment, and we’ll continue to see the attacks.”

Gardner’s future could fracture the city’s ruling political coalition

Progressive leaders are firmly in control of city politics. Fueled by an alliance of Black and white progressive voters, this coalition helped usher St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and Board of Aldermen President Megan Green into office. It also gave Congresswoman Cori Bush a resounding reelection victory last year.

But the turmoil over Gardner is showcasing some political strains. Bush released a lengthy statement on Friday that called for broad systemic changes. That’s in contrast to Jones and Green, who openly questioned whether Gardner should continue her job given what they termed a loss of public trust.

“Accountability isn’t weak. Accountability isn’t pointing fingers. Accountability is when something goes wrong, you take accountability for it,” Jones said. “You say ‘this is my mess-up.’”

Neither Jones nor Green asked Gardner to step down. But the issue of Gardner’s future is a division point in St. Louis Board of Aldermen contests, which could have major implications for Jones and Green’s agenda.

How will the office function?

Gardner’s attorneys will have to convince Appeals Court Judge John Torbitzky and, most likely, the Missouri Supreme Court that she should remain in office.

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Washington University School of Law professor Peter Joy said the circuit attorney’s office should be able to function even if Gardner is tied up with fighting Bailey’s move.

“It’s certainly going to take up some of her time the same way the disciplinary case did,” said Joy, referring to how Gardner had to fightan ethics complaint around her conduct in the prosecution of former-Gov. Eric Greitens. “And it’s likely to affect morale in the office. But other than that, I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of dramatic change in the office while this is pending. It will just have to work its way out.”

Gardner declined to talk about the impact of the effort to oust her on the functions of her office, citing Bailey’s litigation.

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 on Thursday, during a press conference where she talked about the Missouri Attorney General's effort to remove her from office.

The case and prosecutorial discretion

Gardner is often associated with the progressive prosecutor movement, a national trend in which, in general, officeholders focus less on low-level crimes and more on diversion programs that help keep people out of jail. Gardner’s push to overturn wrongful convictionsis a relatively common characteristicof officeholders associated with this political faction.

St. Louis University School of Law professor Brendan Roediger said Bailey’s move could have major implications over the progressive prosecutor movement.

“For folks who believe that one of the ways forward for progressives is progressive prosecutors, this could really be a problem moving forward,” Roediger said. “A court is going to be put in the position of opining on sort of a blank slate about what prosecutors are required to do and what constitutes sound discretion.

“And to the extent that the court takes the position that prosecutors don't have as much discretion as we've traditionally believed they do, that could really be a problem,” he added.

But Roediger said the case’s potential reverberations could affect every prosecutor.

“For all prosecutors, most of whom do not consider themselves progressive, every year they mess up a case. Every year somebody gets released and something goes wrong. These things that have happened here, they happen everywhere. And I would be very surprised if … prosecuting attorneys generally want courts to be in the business of second-guessing their exercise of discretion.”

Natalie Noblett, 61, of Carondelet, places an American flag on a “vote here” sign on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, at the St. Louis Public Library in Carondelet. A primary election for the St. Louis’ Board of Alderman President’s seat will be held on Sept. 13.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Even if Gardner resigns or is removed from office, she could run for another four-year term in 2024.

Gardner’s departure may not end her time in public life

Joy said that if Bailey is successful, it could mean that “lots of government officials would basically be looking over their shoulders.”

“The last thing I think courts would want would be to see something like this weaponized and used in a way that is going to be disruptive,” Joy said. “At the end of the day, Kim Gardner is the elected official. And her job depends on the support of the people at the election box.”

But Joy added that there’s nothing stopping Gardner from running for another four-year term if she resigns or if Bailey removes her from office.

“And she could be elected again,” Joy said.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann and Sarah Kellogg contributed to this story.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.