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A Missouri judge put two kids in jail. He'll have to answer for that

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
In a ruling issued last week, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a southwest Missouri judge improperly jailed two teenagers as part of a bitter custody dispute.

A judge in southwest Missouri crossed the line when he jailed two teenagers in a child custody dispute. That’s according to an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling earlier this month that said Taney County Associate Circuit Judge Eric Eighmy acted improperly.

The ruling marks a rare instance in which a judge can be sued and doesn’t qualify for judicial immunity, a doctrine that broadly shields judges from civil liability when they’re acting in their official capacity.

The case involves contentious child custody proceedings. Upon divorcing in Missouri, Bart Rockett and Kami Ballard agreed to share custody of their two children. Eight years later, in 2018, Ballard sought a change to the arrangement that would give her sole custody.

At a 2019 hearing, the children — then ages 12 and 14 — were in the lobby of the Taney County courthouse. Inside the courtroom, their parents had agreed to a custody arrangement that required the children to live with their mother for about a month before returning to live with their father.

The children, who have been publicly identified as star entertainers who were semifinalists on the 2016 season of "America’s Got Talent," didn’t want to live with their mother, and they voiced their disapproval in the courthouse lobby.

By that time, the hearing had concluded. But Judge Eighmy took matters into his own hands and attempted to intervene as the kids continued to protest. Eighmy personally took the children to jail and placed them in separate cells for an hour. Only after he threatened to place them in foster care did they agree to go with their mother.

Rockett was unhappy with how his children were treated and filed a civil rights action against the judge in federal District Court.

“[When the judge] stepped into the lobby, after court’s over, robe’s off and says, ‘Oh, you don't want to go with mom, kids? I'll show you,’ and he marched them down to the jail and put them into hoosegow for an hour, that is not judging,” said attorney Bevis Schock, of Schock Law, who represents Rockett and his kids.

The 8th Circuit agreed with the District Court that the judge went too far and that judicial immunity doesn’t shield Eighmy’s actions from a lawsuit.

“Judge Eighmy crossed the line when he personally escorted the kids to jail, stood there while they removed their clothes and belongings, and personally came back an hour later to release them,” the 8th Circuit ruled. “For one thing, the children were not even present in the courtroom, so he could not hold them in contempt for ‘[d]isorderly, contemptuous or insolent behavior.’ For another, judges do not do double duty as jailers. So even assuming Judge Eighmy could have ordered someone else to take the kids to jail, he could not put them there himself.”

Schock joined attorneys Connie McFarland-Butler, of the Law Office of Connie McFarland-Butler in Florissant, and Jim Wyrsch, of Khazaeli Wyrsch Law in St. Louis, on St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable.

The attorneys also discussed a Tennessee teenager’s lawsuit against the City of St. Louis overr being struck by a driver downtown, why City Counselor Sheena Hamilton doesn’t want the public to see her office’s opinion on a bill that would allow the city to crack down on people openly carrying firearms without a permit, and more.

For the full Legal Roundtable discussion listen on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

A Missouri judge put two kids in jail. Now, the law is after him

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.