Thomas Harvey, executive director and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, will leave the St. Louis-based civil rights law firm at the end of the year, with Blake Strode to succeed him in leadership.
Harvey, 45, and Strode, 30, made the announcement to The St. Louis American on November 2. Harvey credited the paper's previous coverage of the firm's fundraising efforts to attract and retain black attorneys for its ability to retain Strode after his Skadden Fellowship from Harvard University, which brought the Pattonville High School graduate home to St. Louis, expired.
Harvey is leaving the firm and the region to join his wife, Sheridan Wigginton, in the Los Angeles area, where she chairs the French Department at California Lutheran University. Harvey will work on a national project to raise bail funds and work with civil rights attorneys all over the country to bail out their clients.
Harvey and his fellow cofounder who remains with the firm, Michael-John Voss, have said for years they wanted to groom black leadership for ArchCity. Harvey said they made a national search for his successor, and the internal promotion of Strode was the board's unanimous choice.
Strode, who played tennis professionally before attending Harvard Law School, said he hopes to leverage his contacts at his alma mater and the network of former Skadden Fellows to attract new talent to St. Louis. Fundraising to retain them will remain a priority, he said. Harvey will join the firm's board after a year hiatus to help with that effort.
Strode said the firm's values and core practice areas remain the same: addressing racial disparities in law enforcement and other critical areas, such as housing; fighting “the criminalization of poverty”; and exposing and punishing police violence.
ArchCity was Strode’s first job coming out of law school, and he said the firm’s “multi-faceted advocacy” practice is truly unique. Unlike many civil rights firms that find a policy they want to change and then search for the right clients to front their suit, ArchCity does direct legal service to poor clients and moves from solving their individual problems to finding opportunities to strike for systemic reforms.
Most famously, ArchCity’s advocacy for poor and frequently homeless clients overburdened by nuisance municipal court cases led to the firm’s white paper on municipal court abuses – which became the playbook for reforming municipal courts in St. Louis County after the Ferguson unrest called international attention to the region’s “debtor’s prisons,” as Harvey always calls them.
ArchCity continues to fight for municipal court reform. Harvey said that the firm has seen progress in county municipal courts under the leadership of presiding Judge Douglass Beach. However, Harvey and Strode said they have no confidence that any meaningful permanent reforms have been put into place, since the Missouri Supreme Court did little to rein in or punish unconstitutional municipal courts other than order them to follow the U.S. Constitution – whose provisions, of course, were in place centuries before Ferguson.
In ongoing cases, Strode said that ArchCity hopes to bring an end to the practice of police in Missouri issuing “wanted” alerts as a pretense to detain suspects for questioning without the judicial oversight of the warrant process. ArchCity has filed a suit in federal court claiming that this common practice violates the 4th Amendment.
ArchCity also is eyeing the municipal practice of using the mere charge of a crime to force citizens’ evictions from rental property. Belleville, Illinois and Florissant have this sort of municipal law in effect. Harvey said the system is a “proxy” for race-based exclusion, as the tenants affected are almost always racial minorities.
ArchCity also continues its relentless advocacy on behalf of people experiencing homelessness – work that exceeds the firm’s capacity of 10 full-time attorneys.
“We have to turn people away every day,” Harvey said.
However, Harvey is confident that he is leaving a solid foundation for Strode to build upon in growing the firm. “I wouldn’t be leaving if I didn’t think ArchCity was sustainable,” Harvey said.
Strode said he is intent on “preserving Thomas’ leadership,” while also reminding everyone to stay woke.
“Sometimes there is this illusion that after Ferguson everything has been fixed with the local criminal justice system,” Strode said, “when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. We are still only nibbling at the edges of systemic reform. The municipal courts are still a functioning system for the oppression of poor people.”