Criminal Procedure

As Judge Vacationed in China, Clerks Issued Warrants and Continuances

Clerks for a Missouri judge handled a number of her cases while she was in China on vacation for 10 days in October, dismissing five, issuing as many as 18 bench warrants and continuing more than 300, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

For some defendants, that meant a longer stay in jail than might have been required if a judge had decided the matter differently, the newspaper notes in a lengthy article.

However, the situation, confirmed by a number of observers and case records, wasn’t all that different from the way Associate Circuit Judge Barbara T. Peebles handled her call when she was present, some told the the newspaper: One clerk, known to insiders as “Judge Whitney,” routinely dismissed cases and issued arrest warrants and continuances.

“It was typical for the clerk to announce ‘capias’ or ‘dismissed’ in the courtroom without the judge present, even when the judge was in town,” said Mary Fox. She heads the public defender’s office in St. Louis.

One assistant public defender became so frustrated watching a clerk handle his client’s case while Peebles was absent for a couple of days of judicial training that he filed a handwritten motion seeking a dismissal. It read in part: “The court clerk denied this motion without a judge present and without allowing defense counsel an opportunity to argue the motion,” Fox told the Post-Dispatch.

This isn’t the way a judge’s caseload is supposed to be handled, the presiding judge and circuit clerk agreed, although the latter suggested there was no miscarriage of justice because the clerks probably handled Peebles’ caseload the same way the judge would have. Meanwhile, the circuit attorney’s office seemed at least as concerned about how the newspaper had gotten information about closed cases as how they were handled, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Peebles did arrange for some pending matters to be handled by other judges, rather than her clerks, while she was on vacation, the article notes.

She declined to comment when contacted by the Post-Dispatch, pointing out that some of the cases at issue are still pending.

St. Louis Circuit Court Presiding Judge Steven Ohmer said he had decided against taking the extraordinary action of removing Peebles, since she is scheduled to make a routine rotation soon to a civil caseload.

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