Senate Republican leaders shut down debate in the early morning hours of Sept. 3 to force passage of controversial legislation limiting the independent prosecutorial discretion Missouri’s only elected Black female prosecutor, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.
State Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, offered an amendment granting the attorney general the authority to intervene in certain murder cases in St. Louis city to House Bill 2, an unrelated measure involving admissibility of witness testimony. The amendment led to six hours of heated discussion before the Senate set the bill aside to consider other legislation. The Senate returned to HB 2 just after 1 a.m. Once Republican leaders blocked further debate, the bill ultimately passed on a vote of 22-8.
Gov. Mike Parson amended his special legislative session call on Aug. 10 to add the legislation targeting Gardner. Without evidence, Parson, a Republican, has blamed Gardner, a Democrat, for a spike in violent crime in St. Louis. Parson has complained that Gardner has filed charges in only a fraction of the homicides committed in the city this year, while ignoring that police have yet to solve about three-fourths of those cases and provide Gardner suspects to charge.
After Parson expanded the call, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives refused to advance legislation on the issue. Now that the Senate has added it to HB 2, it remains to be seen if House leaders will relent and allow its passage.
If HB 2 does pass with the St. Louis prosecutor language intact, it likely will be challenged in court for violating at least two provisions of the state constitution – one prohibiting lawmakers from amending bills onto unrelated legislation and the other banning “special laws” that apply to one jurisdiction by not others without valid cause.
Two other bills passed by the Senate now return to the House because of changes in the upper chamber. One, House Bill 11, expands what constitutes endangering the welfare of child. The other House Bill 16, would make it a felony for someone to give a firearm to a child for the purpose of avoiding arrest.
The Senate sent two bills to the governor to be signed into law. House Bill 46 would block St. Louis city from enforcing its local police residency requirement, while House Bill 66 would establish a dedicated fund in the state treasury for pretrial witness protection services.
With his job approval flagging amid a severe economic downtown and widespread criticism over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Parson called this special legislative session in July in an attempt to shift the subject to violent crime. However, the move sparked even further criticism since none of Parson’s proposals prevent crime but instead deal with procedures and penalties once a crime has been committed. Parson also has been lambasted for refusing to include legislation to reduce gun violence and reform abusive police practices in his special session call.
The House of Representatives on Sept. 16 has another chance to wrap up the special legislative session Gov. Mike Parson called in an attempt to create a tough-on-crime image ahead of his Nov. 3 bid for a full term in office. The session began July 27 and Parson, a Republican, had wanted lawmakers to finish within a few days, but the session is now inching closer to the constitutionally mandated adjournment date of Sept. 25.
Three bills still await final action in the Republican-controlled House, the most controversial of which is House Bill 2. When originally passed by the House, the bill just sought to expand the admissibility of witness testimony. However, the Senate added an unrelated provision to limit the independent prosecutorial discretion of the St. Louis circuit attorney, an office currently held by a political target of the governor. Since House leadership refused to even consider a stand-alone bill on that subject, it is unclear if HB 2 will win final passage with the prosecutor provision attached.
The two other measure awaiting final House approval are House Bill 11, which expands what constitutes endangering the welfare of child, and House Bill 16, which would make it a felony for someone to give a firearm to a child for the purpose of avoiding arrest.