Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Grand jury secrecy is important, but not sacred

pixy.org (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

[UPDATE: As I was writing this piece on Friday, the Kentucky court released audio of the grand jury proceedings.  Read more at your preferred news outlet.]

A fight is under way in Kentucky over a grand juror's bid to speak out about what happened in the room in September when the grand jury rejected indictment for the killing of Breonna Taylor.  The attorney for "Anonymous Grand Juror #1" accuses the Kentucky AG of not telling the public the whole story.

Most of the news coverage, and some of the scholarly commentary, follows up report of the meta-litigation with a declaration about the hallowed secrecy of the grand jury and the extraordinary nature of a bid to compromise that secrecy.

That characterization slightly misses the mark.  What is extraordinary, but not unprecedented, about the case is that the bid to speak is coming from a participating grand juror, rather than an outside petitioner, such as an indicted defendant, a victim, or a media intervenor.

We should be protective of grand jury secrecy.  The grand jury is one of the few areas of American law in which our absolutist-tending free speech doctrine makes some concession to the protection of reputation, mostly to the benefit of the unindicted.  

At the same time, we should refrain from heralding grand jury secrecy as incontestable and absolute.  The tradition of grand jury secrecy inverts the presumption underlying the common law right of access to the courts.  Ample common law precedent demonstrates that grand jury secrecy is only a presumption—rebuttable, by definition. 

In 1951, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania wrote ably on the issue while rejecting a defense bid to investigate the grand jury process that resulted in indictments for bribery.

In view of the large amount of literature that has been written concerning the origin and history of the Grand Jury as one of the administrative agencies of the criminal law employed for centuries throughout the Anglo-Saxon world it is wholly unnecessary to attempt to elaborate upon those themes. Likewise there is no need to stress the vital importance of the maintenance of secrecy in regard to the deliberations and proceedings of Grand Juries, for the policy of the law in that respect has been so long established that it is familiar to every student of the law. The form of the oath of secrecy to be exacted of grand jurors was prescribed in our own Commonwealth as early as the Frame of Government enacted by the Provincial Assembly in 1696, substantially the same as it had been set forth in 1681 .... Generally speaking, the rule is that grand jurors cannot be sworn and examined to impeach the validity and correctness of their finding if an indictment has been regularly returned.

[¶] It is true that some inroads have been made upon the rule of secrecy, with a resulting number of established exceptions. Thus a grand juror has been held to be a competent witness to prove who the prosecutor was .... Or to contradict the testimony of a witness as to what she testified to before the Grand Jury .... Or to testify that the indictment was based solely upon testimony heard by the Grand Jury in another case against another person .... 

As to whether the mandate of secrecy nevertheless permits disclosure by a grand juror concerning alleged improper acts or misconduct on the part of the prosecuting officer in the Grand Jury room there is considerable contrariety of opinion in the various jurisdictions, ... which naturally results from the fact that there are obviously valid reasons to support either view. 

[¶] On the one hand, to close the doors of the Grand Jury room so tightly that the actions of the prosecuting officer therein cannot be disclosed, however flagrant and unlawful his conduct may have been and however much it may have been responsible for the finding of a wholly unauthorized bill of indictment, would be unfair to the defendant thus indicted even though, if innocent, he could subsequently vindicate himself in a trial upon the merits; it would also permit an over-zealous official to use the power of his office and his influence with the grand jury as an instrument of oppression, with immunity from investigation. On the other hand, to allow such an investigation lightly to be had would afford an opportunity to every defendant to institute dilatory proceedings and divert the course of justice from himself to an attack upon the public officials charged with administering the law and thereby seek to make them the defendants in the proceedings instead of himself.

Commonwealth v. Judge Smart, 368 Pa. 630 (1951).

I don't know enough about the merits in the Kentucky case to opine on what the outcome should be.  The AG's memo is in circulation online, but I can't find the juror's initial petition.  I expect the court to make an informed decision that balances the just cause of secrecy with the also-just cause of accountability.  

If grand jury secrecy gives way, the sky isn't falling.

The case is Anonymous Grand Juror #1 v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, No. 20-CI-5721 (Jefferson, Mo., Cir. Ct. II Div. filed Sept. 2020).

[UPDATE, Oct. 21.]  Yesterday the court ruled that grand jurors may speak publicly.  This is the statement of Anonymous Grand Juror #1.


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