Because of the indictment of Gov. Eric Greitens, I won’t be writing about Inez Bordeaux today. It’s unfortunate because hers is a story worth telling.
The 37-year-old single mother of four lives in south St. Louis. She’s a nurse, or used to be anyway, before a felony arrest turned her life upside down.
Bordeaux is black. She’s poor. When she got indicted by a grand jury for taking more unemployment benefits than she deserved, Bordeaux ended up in jail for 30 days. Her kids were taken away.
None of that happened to Greitens on Thursday. The governor was arrested and charged with felony invasion of privacy. The charge stems from an incident three years ago when he allegedly took a photo of his half-naked lover without her consent. At the time she was blindfolded and tied to exercise equipment of some sort, according to a recording of a conversation between her and her ex-husband.
Greitens, the first sitting governor indicted in state history, was led into a courtroom outside the public view, released on his own recognizance, and allowed still to travel anywhere in the U.S. while charges are pending. No bail. No jail.
Bordeaux, whose story I will tell on another day, was arrested in the same city by the same prosecutor’s office and charged with a similar level of felony. Years later, she’s still putting her life back together.
In Missouri, we criminalize the very act of being poor.
And that’s where there’s a lesson in the Greitens indictment, beyond his guilt or innocence, more important than any political consequences for one obscenely ambitious man. The case of State v. Greitens stands as a metaphor to the lack of balance on the scales of American justice.
There is one standard for white men in power, and quite a different one for people like Bordeaux.
From the moment the allegations surfaced of the governor’s potential criminal behavior, he has had the best legal representation dark money could buy. As his personal attorneys he has both of the namesakes of the powerful and respected Dowd Bennett law firm: Edward L. Dowd Jr. and James Bennett. He has also hired former Circuit Court Judge Jack Garvey. They are all fine lawyers, and they aren’t cheap.
That’s fine. The governor deserves excellent lawyers. Even if he did trash the profession in his first State of the State speech.
“We’re the place where the nastiest lawyers come to do work so dirty, and engage in lawsuits so murky, they wouldn’t pass muster anywhere else,” Greitens said. “Our judicial system is broken, and the trial lawyers who have broken it, well, their time is up.”
The system isn’t broken for Greitens.
He’ll likely have help from unnamed donors to pay for his high-priced legal advice. (Neither Greitens nor his attorneys will say who is paying the bill or how much it will be). Dowd Bennett is also representing the governor’s office in the civil lawsuit and attorney general’s investigation into the governor’s use of the Confide app that destroys text messages before they can be archived. The law firm says it is donating its services to the state in those cases.
Back in the day, Bordeaux got free representation, too, from a public defender who cost taxpayers about $325. That’s not an hourly rate. That’s a per case average. For years, various studies have documented how a poorly funded public defenders’ office that handles about 85,000 cases per year in Missouri is threatening the constitutional rights of thousands of indigent defendants.
The constitution that politicians like Greitens claim to respect demands that all people have fair access to the judicial system, but that’s not a reality when poor defendants sit in jail — unable to afford bail — for months because their public defender can’t even work through a backlog of cases to get bail reduced or otherwise move the legal process along.
In his budget that he released this year, Greitens didn’t propose hiring any new public defenders. Michael Barrett, the director of the state public defenders’ office, asked for 347 new attorneys. In his budget proposal, Barrett reminded Greitens and lawmakers of their constitutional commitment to justice.
The state’s “astonishing low cost of indigent defense — among the lowest in the nation — is not a cause for celebration,” Barrett wrote. “It comes at the cost of justice.”
Greitens’ team of top-quality trial lawyers will make sure his constitutional rights are protected as he faces criminal charges in the city of St. Louis, and a civil lawsuit in Cole County.
As they should be.
But as the cases drag on, thousands of poor Missourians will have their lives permanently damaged by a state budget that doesn’t respect their constitutional right to a competent defense. Greitens could do something about this, but he won’t.
It’s as though the governor has forgotten: Lady Justice wears a blindfold.