Kim Gardner to resign as St. Louis circuit attorney, leaving a legacy of turmoil
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner will resign, effective June 1, ending a tumultuous tenure plagued by allegations of mismanagement and chronic staffing issues.
In a statement, Gardner said her decision to leave was centered around scuttling legislation that would exert more state control over her office and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
“I can absorb these attacks, and I have,” Gardner wrote. “But I can neither enable nor allow the outright disenfranchisement of the people of the City of St. Louis, nor can I allow these outsiders to effectively shut down our important work.”
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said Gardner called him earlier this week and broached the possibility of resigning in exchange for lawmakers dropping the special prosecutor bill.
Rizzo said that Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden was involved in conversations with Gardner about resigning. Rizzo praised the Columbia Republican for treating Gardner with respect.
“I think that it is important to her that she left the office intact as far as autonomy and not having state control within the office, but I am very confident that she would like to move on with her life after being a political punching bag for the last five or six years,” Rizzo said. “I don't know anybody that wouldn't want to move on.”
Gardner said: “The most powerful weapon I have to fight back against these outsiders stealing your voices and your rights is to step back. I took this job to serve the people of the City of St. Louis, and that’s still my North star.”
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who has been trying to oust her with a court process called quo warranto, questioned why Gardner was waiting until June 1 to step down, adding that his bid to remove her from office would continue.
“Every day she remains puts the city of St. Louis in more danger. How many victims will there be between now and June 1?” Bailey said. “How many defendants will have their constitutional rights violated? How many cases will continue to go unprosecuted?"
Gardner’s resignation, announced Thursday, came after a particularly damaging week for the Democratic prosecutor, including a judge allowing most of Bailey’s case to remove her from office to go forward and revelations that she was taking nursing classes at St. Louis University during a staffing crisis at her office.
While Gardner proclaimed over the weekend that she had no plans to step aside, the news about her time at SLU, first reported by the Riverfront Times, may have been a key piece of evidence against her. Bailey needed to prove that Gardner is willfully neglecting her duties, and legal experts told St. Louis Public Radio that taking extensive classes could broach that threshold.
Political support for Gardner already was eroding, including among Democrats. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said earlier this year that Gardner needed to do “soul-searching” about whether she wanted to continue in her post. And momentum was building in Jefferson City to pass legislation allowing the governor to appoint a special prosecutor who could handle key aspects of Gardner’s duties, such as violent crimes.
On Thursday, Jones said: "In February, I said Circuit Attorney Gardner should take accountability for her office … to determine whether or not she wants to continue in her role. She has clearly taken that advice to heart by offering her resignation.”
Jones said Gardner “made history by becoming the first Black woman to lead the office,” adding that "there’s no doubt she has faced more obstacles than her predecessors because of it.”
“Our Circuit Attorney’s Office is a critical public safety partner, and it must be managed and staffed effectively to help protect constitutional rights and deliver justice,” Jones said. "No one wanted to see the Circuit Attorney’s Office fail, and my administration has reached out consistently to the office to offer assistance. We are hopeful that the governor will work with local leaders to appoint a successor who reflects the values of communities across St. Louis."
As alluded to in Jones’ statement, Gov. Mike Parson will appoint Gardner’s replacement to fill the remainder of her term, which runs through the end of 2024. While he could pick a fellow Republican, Parson has said he will work with Jones to decide on a replacement. Because St. Louis is heavily Democratic, selecting a Republican successor could mean there would be a leadership change in the office after 2024.
“We fully understand the gravity of this situation and approach our duty to appoint a replacement with the utmost seriousness. We will immediately start the replacement process according to the Missouri Constitution" and state statute, Parson said. “We are committed to finding a candidate who represents the community, values public safety, and can help restore faith in the city's criminal justice system."
Promising start, mounting problems
Gardner, 47, took an unusual path to become the city’s first Black circuit attorney.
Her family ran a funeral home in north St. Louis. Gardner earned an undergraduate degree at Harris-Stowe State University, as well as law and nursing degrees at St. Louis University. She worked in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office for about five years.
Gardner’s first foray into electoral politics was unsuccessful, as she was crushed by then-state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed in a 2008 Democratic primary for state representative. But Gardner said during a 2015 episode of Politically Speaking that Nasheed called her to run in the race to succeed her in the House. She won that contest easily.
After spending two terms in the House, Gardner entered the Democratic primary to succeed retiring Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce. She prevailed over three opponents on a platform to increase racial diversity in the circuit attorney's office and push for stricter gun laws.
From a political standpoint, Gardner was adept at building a multiracial coalition of voters to win her two elections. Even though she had strong ties with people like former Congressman Lacy Clay and his allies, Gardner also received both organizational and financial support from progressive politicians and groups.
She said she wanted to build trust between law enforcement and Black people, especially after a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014.
“We have to hold the serious individuals accountable for the violent crime we’re seeing,” she said. “And we need witnesses and victims to come forward — and feel comfortable coming forward.”
Greitens trial proved pivotal
Gardner faced headwinds early in her tenure, especially after staffers in the circuit attorney’s office began to leave. That left Gardner to hire replacements who had much less institutional knowledge and experience.
But it was the prosecution of then-Gov. Eric Greitens that turned the spotlight most directly on the office.
Gardner charged Greitens with invasion of privacy after a woman with whom he was having an affair accused the Republican governor of taking a semi-nude photo of her without her permission. Investigators were never able to find the photo on Greitens’ iPhone or cloud storage.
The high-profile case imploded after Greitens' attorneys accused an outside investigator in the case hired by Gardner, William Tisaby, of making false statements during a deposition. After a judge ruled that Greitens’ lawyers could question Gardner about why she didn’t correct Tisaby’s misstatements, she dropped the case.
Greitens would laterreach a deal with the circuit attorney’s office to resign as governor in exchange for prosecutors dropping separate campaign finance charges against him.
Gardner last year admitted to violating state court operating rules in her handling of the case. The Missouri Supreme Court issued a fine and a reprimand. Tisaby pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of evidence tampering.
Gardner’s relationship with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department also was antagonistic. She said she needed to hire Tisaby for the Greitens case because the department refused to investigate the allegations, something the department denied. She and former Police Chief John Hayden got into an extended spat over a list of officers excluded from bringing cases to her office. And in 2020, she sued the city, its police union and five other defendants over what she described as a racist conspiracy to block her criminal justice reform agenda.
A federal judge dismissed the case, calling it “a conglomeration of unrelated claims and conclusory statements supported by very few facts, which do not plead any recognizable cause of action.”
Ultimately though, the controversies Gardner encountered in her first term did not affect her ability to get reelected. She easily defeated a Democratic primary opponent in 2020 before cruising to another four-year term against a GOP opponent.
And earlier this year, Gardner prevailed in what was arguably the pinnacle of her time in office: successfully convincing a judge, along with a group of private attorneys, that Lamar Johnson should be freed after nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
The glory around Johnson being freed from jail faded rapidly.
Just four days later, on Feb. 18, Daniel Riley sped through a stop sign in downtown St. Louis and caused a crash that critically injured a 17-year-old volleyball player in town for a tournament. Janae Edmundson had to have both her legs amputated.
Riley, 21, was on electronic monitoring for an armed robbery and had violated the terms of his bond several times. But Gardner’s office had never officially filed a motion to revoke that bond and send him back to jail.
It was that case that prompted Jones and Board of Aldermen President Megan Green to pull back on their support of Gardner, with whom the two were aligned on many criminal justice issues. Bailey demanded her resignation, then launched a legal effort known as a quo warranto to oust her when she refused.
The exodus of assistant circuit attorneys accelerated, with media reports indicating that there were fewer than five prosecutors handling hundreds of felony cases. That led to numerous instances in which the office had no one present at court hearings.
Fed up with the situation, two circuit judges would separately order Gardner to explain why she and her assistants should not be held in contempt of court. One judge, Scott Millikan, would rule the office did not deliberately fail to show up and therefore the high bar for contempt was not met.
But his colleague, Michael Noble, ordered Gardner and a former assistant, Chris Desilets, to essentially stand trial on indirect criminal contempt charges. That case had been scheduled for a hearing on May 30.
Some experienced legal observers saw what was happening in Gardner’s office as an unprecedented crisis. Joe Dandurand, a former deputy attorney general and judge, said he was dumbfounded that Gardner didn’t ask for help from outside prosecutors to help alleviate the massive caseload for her attorneys.
“I've been at this for over 40 years,” he said. “I've never seen anything like this.”
The turmoil built momentum in the Missouri General Assembly for a proposal allowing the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to handle a great deal of Gardner’s duties.
Supporters, detractors react
Reaction to Gardner’s resignation was swift. Many of Gardner’s legislative critics praised the move, including the GOP House leadership team that’s led by House Speaker Dean Plocher.
“Now is the time for local leadership to take responsibility and take action to once again earn the trust of the people and return St. Louis to the great city we all know it should be,” the statement from House leadership said. “It is time to work together to restore accountability, deliver justice for victims, stand with our brave men and women in law enforcement, and restore the rule of law in the city of St. Louis."
Greater St. Louis Inc. President Jason Hall said Gardner’s resignation “was long overdue.”
“As we have said for months, her incompetent management and unforgiveable failures have made our community less safe and criminals more emboldened. That combination failed the people who elected her and residents across the St. Louis metro,” Hall said. “Violent crime is one of the largest barriers to economic growth and prosperity in our metro area. We hope new leadership in the circuit attorney’s office will bring clear focus on reducing violent crime, ensuring justice, and rebuilding trust in the criminal justice system.”
State Sen. Steve Roberts, a former assistant circuit attorney who represents a portion of St. Louis, said, “An effective and dedicated circuit attorney is of the utmost importance for ensuring that the victims of crimes, their families, and the accused receive justice.”
“Violent crime impacts all of St. Louis, and those who fill the role of purveyors of justice have an enormous responsibility,” Roberts said. “Kim Gardner is making what she believes is the best decision given the circumstances, and the best decision for the City of St. Louis.”
Roberts said that while he was initially surprised to see Gardner resign, he also had concerns about the backlog of cases.
He agreed Gardner resigning could take the pressure off passing the bill containing the special prosecutor language and the state takeover of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
“I think that takes a lot of the air out of their arguments,” Roberts said.
Roberts was one of several Senate Democrats who were a part of a nine-hour filibuster in the effort to stop the passage of the bill with those provisions.
State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said her initial reaction to Gardner’s resignation was sadness. She also said only Gardner can know if this was the right decision to make.
“I'm not here to judge Kim Gardner’s decision, but I think she made a courageous decision to move to set herself aside in order to protect the voters and the future of that office in the city of St. Louis. That's courageous to me,” May said.
Rizzo said the standing for the quo warranto would almost certainly vanish once Gardner departed from office. He was also highly critical of how Bailey handled that case.
“I firmly believe that Andrew Bailey wanted to campaign for the next year on Kim Gardner and her removal and have this facade of a show in September,” Rizzo said. “Caleb Rowden was able to be the adult in the room and get done what Andrew Bailey could not get done.”
Gardner's resignation statement