By David M. Greenwald
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner has been under fire since the start of her term from a whole host of adversaries, and the latest comes just a week after a resounding win at the polls last week where Republican Governor Mike Parson asked legislators to approve legislation that would give the State Attorney General “concurrent jurisdiction,” allowing him to intervene in local homicide cases.
While the governor and attorney general have acknowledged no request for their assistance, they claim they view this as a way to help Gardner.
“This is not a personal attack,” the governor said.
No one else seems to be taking it that way.
Gardner immediately fired back saying, “it is clear that this legislation is not actually about addressing crime—instead, it serves as a vehicle to interfere with the clear discretion of a democratically elected local prosecutor.”
St. Louis County prosecuting attorney (St. Louis City is independent of the county) Wesley Bell also expressed outrage at the amendment proposed by Missouri Republicans calling this this “an immoral attempt to usurp the will of the voters,” because the State Attorney General’s office is not responsible to those who elected Gardner.
Gardner told the Vanguard that nothing has been put in place yet—but it could happen next week.
“We’re just waiting to see what is going on,” she said.
There are questions about the legality of this move.
“I don’t think (it’s legal),” said Gardner. “But you have to really think about what—the governor and the issues of separation of powers, injecting the executive branch into the judicial branch.
“This is not constitutional,” she stated. But beyond that, she said, “This is really about accepting the will of the people and who they elect to hold the prosecutor’s position in the city of St. Louis.
“Somehow the governor for whatever reason doesn’t believe in what that elected official is doing—they choose political pandering and an attack to usurp the will of the people. So it’s really voter suppression. That’s the biggest issue.”
Recently there has been heavy disagreement about the prosecution of the McCloskeys who wielded weapons against protesters back in June, but there is also a larger backdrop about pushback over reform efforts and attempts to hold police accountable.
“I think it’s about the reform efforts, I think it’s about political pandering,” she said. But she also argued it was “misdirection” and argued, “I think it’s about misdirecting from the flawed leadership at every level of government.”
This week Gardner picked up what could be an important ally—a letter from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (MAPA) came out strongly against the proposal.
“Holding true to the position we as an association have held for decades, the 115 independent, locally elected prosecuting attorneys of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (MAPA) stand united against any proposal to vest any new original or concurrent jurisdiction with the Attorney General,” they wrote on Wednesday.
“The best control is local control. Vesting the Attorney General with new original or concurrent jurisdiction erodes the ability of local voters to decide who will seek justice on their behalf should they be victimized by crime,” they write.
Further, “any attempt to vest the attorney general with jurisdiction to prosecute homicides without the request of the elected prosecuting attorney fundamentally changes our system of local, independent prosecution that has served the citizens of Missouri well since 1875.”
The efforts here are not isolated. Yesterday, the Vanguard reported similar efforts in Virginia, where it was the Circuit Court that entered an order that would require that the Commonwealth Attorney in Arlington justify all charging decisions and writing—decisions on whether to dismiss, charge or even settle cases in her jurisdiction.
As one source put it, “decisions that are at the core of the exercise of independent prosecutorial discretion.”
“The Circuit Court’s order in this case is the latest example of an unsettling trend nationwide of interference with elected prosecutors’ efforts to promote evidence-based approaches that move away from past decades of ‘tough on crime’ punitive policies,” said Miriam Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the organization that coordinated the amicus brief.
Krinsky added, “Voters overwhelmingly elected CA Dehghani-Tafti to reform the criminal legal system. While courts did not previously interfere with prosecutorial discretion when it was used to fuel mass incarceration, the circuit court’s attempt to undermine a new vision of justice, that promotes safer and healthier communities, runs counter to decades of well-settled prosecutorial autonomy.”
The Pennsylvania legislature last year attempted to muscle power from reformer DA Larry Krasner of Philadelphia, giving authority to the state’s attorney general to prosecute certain firearms violations in Philadelphia—and nowhere else in the state.
In Florida, Aramis Ayala declined to run for reelection after the state stripped her discretion on the death penalty.
“My duty is to seek justice, which is fairness, objectivity, and decency,” she said. “I am prohibited from making the severity of sentences the index of my effectiveness.”
Gardner, 45, the first Black woman elected circuit attorney in St. Louis, has vowed to continue efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
“This bill does nothing to actually address the underlying issues that are driving violent crime,” Gardner said in a statement Monday.
She was critical of the state’s handling of the COVID epidemic and said, “Instead of doing their job, they want to do something that will cause fear with divisive rhetoric.”
Gardner added, “I think it has been the powerful few that has been fighting against our reforms from day one since I’ve been elected in this jurisdiction.”
She said, “The people of the city of St. Louis in 2016 voted for me overwhelmingly and they doubled down on enacting the efforts of reform in the city of St. Louis.”
She said if the people didn’t want her reforms, they had a chance August 4 and still have a chance in November to elect someone else.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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