Kim Gardner’s office, Missouri AG spar over ground rules, set trial date in removal suit

st. LOUIS — The region’s attention was fixed Tuesday on a fourth-floor courtroom in the city’s civil courts building for the first glimpse of what’s shaping up to be a fierce legal battle between the state’s attorney general and the city’s top prosecutor.

There, in front of a packed court, a rotating cast of attorneys leveled their initial arguments in the fight over the future of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner.

“Everyone is watching us today, not only in this community, but beyond,” said Bill Corrigan, who represented Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. “It’s in everyone’s interest to resolve this one way or another as expeditiously as possible.”

Tuesday’s arguments focused on whether Bailey’s lawsuit, which attempts to remove Gardner from office for failing to uphold her duties, should be dismissed and what evidence city prosecutors must provide to the state. The two sides sparred for more than four hours about the trial timelines, subpoenas and the contents of the case.

People are also reading…

Ultimately, Judge John Torbitzky said he’d rule on most of the issues at a later date. He did, however, set a tentative date of Sept. 25 for a three-week trial.

Kim Gardner appears in court for first hearing in a removal suit

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner sits behind her attorneys in a St. Louis courtroom on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, during a hearing in a lawsuit by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey seeking to remove Gardner from office.

David Carson photos, Post-Dispatch

“People in the state and the city want to know an answer sooner rather than later,” he said. “This is something where time is of the essence.”

Booker T. Shaw, a lawyer representing the St. Louis Circuit Court judges, described the situation as “untenable.”

“The circuit attorney’s office is now in a state of near-total collapse,” he told the court near the end of Tuesday’s hearing.

Gardner’s office has faced criticism for years for cases of mishandling, understaffing and organizational dysfunction. The criticism reached a fever pitch in February when a 17-year-old volleyball player visited downtown St. Louis from Tennessee was pinned between two cars in a crash. Both of the girl’s legs were amputated. The man charged in the crash was free on bond in a pending robbery case despite violating the conditions of his GPS monitor several dozen times.

Republicans and Democrats alike blamed Gardner for allowing the man to remain on bond. Gardner argued his office tried to put him back in jail, but a judge denied their request. She later released a statement that said it was “not the time for finger pointing,” which sparked more calls for her to resign.

Bailey filed his “quo warranto” lawsuit Feb. 23, argued Gardner’s tenure had been characterized by “neglect in office.” He said he failed to prosecute cases by dismissing charges and allowing others to speak language, failed to keep victims informed and failed to review thousands of cases submitted by St. Louis police.

Kim Gardner appears in court for first hearing in a removal suit

Judge John Torbitzky listens as lawyers make arguments about a motion to dismiss the lawsuit seeking to remove St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner from office on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

David Carson, Post-Dispatch

David Carson, Post-Dispatch

Gardner argued that Bailey was attempting to thwart the will of St. Louis voters, who elected her twice.

“It’s a poorly considered political move that doesn’t remotely state a lawful claim for Ms. Gardner’s ouster,” Gardner’s attorney Jonathan Sternberg told the court on Tuesday.

Sternberg noted only 13 previous public officials in Missouri history, including two prosecutors, have been ousted using quo warranto.

Those removals included corrupt officials who misstated public funds, gave kickbacks to friends or “intentionally turned a blind eye toward notorious organized crime due to their own involvement in those same offenses,” Sternberg said.

Bailey’s allegations “don’t remotely come close to meeting that bar,” Sternberg argued.

But Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane said that a public official doesn’t have to commit a crime or be guilty of corruption to face removal. Gardner’s “repeated pattern” of not prosecuting cases was enough to merit her oversight, he said.

“What we’re talking about is doing the same thing over and over again and failing in a way that’s not excusable,” Crane said.

Torbitzky said he would make a decision on dismissal later, but in the meantime, he considered a 54-point subpoena to the Circuit Attorney’s Office for contracts, budget documents, texts, emails, case data and complaints.

Kim Gardner appears in court for first hearing in a removal suit

Attorney Jonathan Jeffress, left, representing the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office, and Missouri Assistant Attorney General Gregory Goodwin present arguments over attempts to get access to internal documents from the office of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney.

David Carson, Post-Dispatch

Gardner’s attorneys opposed the bulk of requests, including a list of cases Gardner personally prosecuted during her time as an assistant to emails about cases between her staff, police and victims.

A lawyer for the attorney general argued they were all necessary to investigate the case, but Jonathan Jeffress, who is representing the Circuit Attorney’s Office, called them “absurdly oppressive and burdensome for an office of public servants that have another job to do.”

“(The attorney general) should not be allowed to pry into the inner workings of the office in this way,” he argued.

“This entire lawsuit is about the inner workings of the office,” Torbitzky said in response.

“Which is why it should be dismissed,” Jeffress said.

At the end of the hearing, Torbitzky pledged to review the subpoenas, then set the tentative trial date.

The attorney general’s office urged him to work fast. Multiple prosecutors have left the office in recent weeks, leaving several to handle the city’s most violent felony cases. Prosecutors have failed to turn over evidence, repeatedly delaying hearings and, on Monday, a judge filed to hold Gardner in contempt of court because no one from Gardner’s office showed up for a murder trial.

Outside the courthouse, Natalia Ogurkiewicz, who abruptly resigned from her post as an assistant circuit attorney on Friday and wrote of a “toxic work environment” in her resignation letter, told reporters she felt like she had been thrown under the bus by her former boss .

Meanwhile, several Gardner supporters surrounded Ogurkiewicz, holding up signs, shouting and questioning her motives.

“You betrayed Kim Gardner,” one supporter told her.

If Torbitzky decides not to dismiss the case, the parties are set for another hearing May 2.

Live stream of the hearing scheduled to start at 1:30 pm Video provided by Fox2Now via pool coverage

You May Also Like

More From Author