In our editorial on February 7 titled “Federal judge has opportunity to issue landmark ruling,” we encouraged U.S. Judge Audrey G. Fleissig to seize the opportunity presented to her in David Dixon, et. al., v. City of St. Louis, et. al. to bust open the debtors’ prisons that the City of St. Louis and Missouri’s 22nd Judicial Circuit perpetuate in our city’s jails. “We urge the judge to rule on the side of the U.S. Constitution and not our compromised local status quo and start the dawning of a new, better day in our courts.” In an opinion on the case issued on Tuesday, June 11, she seized that opportunity.
Fleissig was ruling on the four named plaintiffs’ motions for class-action certification (granted) and for an preliminary injunction to order the city and courts to start cleaning up their acts now while the case is being adjudicated (also granted – with the extremely encouraging note that the plaintiff’s case “has a high probability of prevailing on the merits”). She also was ruling on motions to dismiss filed by both the city and the circuit judges; both were dismissed. The ruling on the preliminary injunction will have an immediate impact, if the circuit court and city follow the court’s order and start obeying the U.S. Constitution in how they set conditions for bail and manage the bail process. However, the ruling on the city and judges’ motions to dismiss reveal more about what this judge thinks about how the defendants understand and administer the law in St. Louis.
For one, she shreds the circuit judges in their motion to dismiss because their motion is argued with reference to case law that the federal judge ruled to be meaningless to the case before the court. It is chilling to see people who impact peoples’ lives every day ruling on the law shown up for their basic failure to use case law to defend themselves.
More crucial to the central claims of the case, Fleissig rules that the defendants essentially agree to the plaintiffs’ (incredibly distressing) statement of facts, but assert that other legal remedies already exist for the poor people languishing in pre-trial detention independent of this federal suit (brought by ArchCity Defenders, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection). Fleissig uses stinging brevity to ridicule the circuit judges’ position: “An illusory remedy cannot be an adequate remedy.” She accuses the city and circuit court of believing in and perpetuating the “illusion” that law is being practiced in the city’s courts and jail in a way that aligns with the U.S. Constitution’s protections.
We are gratified to find the judge so perfectly in alignment with the position that we espoused in our February 7 editorial, where we wrote, “The judge could look at the evidence and decide that routine procedures in the St. Louis circuit court, even though technically compliant with state standards, routinely violate federal constitutional guarantees and must be overhauled.” Indeed, she has done exactly that and earned our greatest respect for placing the rights of the accused over the maintenance of an unconstitutional, though ingrained, status quo.
We also salute the federal judge for recognizing on the record that new, higher state standards for bail conditions and process established by the Missouri Supreme Court do not guarantee any change in how justice actually is administered. “Given defendants’ systemic non-compliance with the more lenient standards of the current rule,” the judge writes, “defendants’ operational capacity to satisfy the higher standards of the new rule remains to be seen.” And, the inference is clear, one very demanding and astute federal judge – with this case on her docket – will be watching.
This opinion burns the city’s shameful, ongoing malpractice of the law into the federal record as an everlasting example of how justice should not be administered. As usual, she uses the city and judges’ evidence against them, this time in the form of testimony by a bond officer supervisor, Donald Kearbey. “Kearbey explicitly confirms that arrestees who can post bail are allowed to leave immediately, and those who cannot are detained,” the judge notes. “This is precisely what plaintiffs lament and what federal precedent prohibits.” Money can’t walk while poverty sits in the jail, the federal judge reminds the circuit judge and city officials. And right there we may indeed be witnessing the dawning of a new, better day for fairness in our city courts.