Rebecca Rivas, Missouri Independent
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner announced her resignation Thursday afternoon effective June 1, after brokering a deal to kill a bill that would allow a state takeover of the city prosecutor’s office.
“An elected prosecutor is our city’s sole opportunity to have a say in its community’s criminal justice system,” Gardner said in a letter announcing her resignation. “The proposed bill strips that right from all of us. If I can stop that from happening, I will, even if that necessitates my considering leaving the office to which you have elected me.”
Republican legislators made it clear in January that challenging Gardner’s authority was a top priority this year. In February, Attorney General Andrew Bailey filed a writ of quo warranto, alleging that Gardner’s office has failed to process and prosecute cases promptly and with competence. Gardner’s responding filing said the case was part of the political crusade against her.
Despite Gardner’s announcement, Bailey said Thursday he would continue his push to remove her from office before June 1.
Just this week, Senate Democrats blocked a vote on a bill that would give the governor the ability to strip the authority of any elected prosecutor to handle violent crime cases and appoint a special prosecutor — or the attorney general — to take over those cases for five years.
The bill, originally filed in January, focused solely on the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office.
Gardner was elected as part of a movement to transform public safety, which ignited after the Ferguson uprising in 2014. She ran on a platform to fight for police accountability and to reform the “arrest and incarcerate” model of criminal justice through diversion programs and supportive health services.
Gardner wrote in her resignation letter that she’s experienced attacks on these reforms since her first day in office.
“I can absorb those attacks, and I have,” she 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. If not for these two things, I would continue to fight tirelessly to maintain the job you selected me to serve.”
But over the last year, her office has come under increased criticism. She was reprimanded by the Missouri Supreme Court for her office’s conduct during its investigation of former Gov. Eric Greitens, and has faced questions about staff turnover.
The criticism peaked after a teen visiting St. Louis for a volleyball tournament was hit by a car driven by someone who had violated his bond dozens of times. Both of the girl’s legs were amputated, and both Republicans and Democrats began calling for her resignation.
In Jefferson City, the bill taking over a large chunk of her office was put on the fast track.
Gardner, who is the first Black female prosecutor in Missouri, called the proposed bill a “brutal assault on our democracy, one that mirrors the attacks in Jackson, Mississippi, and throughout Florida.”
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he helped broker a deal to set aside the bill if she resigned.
“We obviously came to a place where she would be willing to resign” if the legislation was dropped, Rizzo told the Post-Dispatch. “There was an agreement in place that that would happen sooner than later.”
By law, Gov. Mike Parson will appoint someone to fill Gardner’s position until the next regular election, which is in the fall of 2024.
“We fully understand the gravity of this situation and approach our duty to appoint a replacement with the utmost seriousness,” Parson said in a statement. “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.”
Gardner touted that she accomplished many of the things voters asked her to do, including overturning wrongful convictions, expanding public health interventions and ramping up trauma-informed victim’s services.
“We have achieved so many important victories together,” she said. “But I cannot be the final circuit attorney ever to be elected in St. Louis. You must be able to have a voice in your criminal justice system. And we must allow our office to continue to operate.”
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