I’ve been trying to understand why grand jury secrecy works the way it does, and there are parts of it that just don’t make sense to me. At a fundamental level, the idea of the government telling people there’s stuff they can never, ever talk about just doesn’t seem right. Our right to free speech isn’t absolute, but there usually has to be a pretty good reason for an exception.
As an aside, just why doesn’t the First Amendment apply? While discussing another topic, Mark Bennett explains that there are nine accepted exceptions to the First Amendment’s speech protections:
- Advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action;
- [Distribution of] obscenity;
- Speech integral to [non-speech] criminal conduct;
- So-called “fighting words”;
- Child pornography;
- True threats; and
- Speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the government has the power to prevent.
I don’t see how the prohibition against revealing grand jury proceedings fits under any of those. I assume this is because the speech restriction inherent in grand jury secrecy comes about through a completely different legal mechanism, presumably the same one (or a similar one) that enables trial jury secrecy, makes it a crime to talk to a juror about a case they’re hearing, and allows courts to issue gag orders. I’m guessing this is all part the pre-existing common law that underlies much of the U.S. constitution.
Anyway, I’m more interested in the policy argument than the legal reasons things are the way the are. To that end, Jack Marshall’s argument against a Ferguson grand juror going public organizes some of the arguments rather nicely.
Much of the justification for grand jury secrecy is OPSEC:
Secrecy prevents those who are being investigated from interfering with witnesses and otherwise tampering with and attempting to corrupt the investigation. […] It decreases the likelihood that one who is about to be indicted by a grand jury will flee and thereby avoid being brought to trial on those charges.
These are great policy reasons for maintaining grand jury secrecy while the grand jury investigation is in progress, but the harms they protect against are no longer possible once the investigation is over. Because physics. And yet grand jury secrecy is forever.
It protects witnesses who might be reluctant to testify if they believed their comments would be made public.
Grand jury secrecy already has some holes. Testimony can already become public in a variety of ways. If the case goes to trial, the witnesses would be expected to repeat their testimony in open court, and their grand jury testimony can come into play. It’s my understanding that in some states grand jury testimony becomes a matter of public record if the defendant is indicted.
If even one grand jury is able to have the ban on secrecy lifted, every grand jury will labor under the fear of those involved that jurors will speak to the media and reveal harmful details.
Why exactly would revealing details be a bad thing? We generally consider accountability to be a good policy that helps ensure our institutions are doing what we want them to. In fact, almost every other player in the court system has to operate in the sunshine: Cops, prosecutors, witnesses, judges, petit jurors, and defense lawyers all have to do their part with the knowledge that once it’s all over, anyone involved can reveal their words and conduct to the public. I’m not sure why accountability is good for everyone else but bad for grand juries.
Besides, as I said, grand juries already labor under the knowledge that what they do could be revealed. And many states manage to indict people using preliminary hearings. If these non-secret hearings work okay, then I don’t seen why non-secret grand juries couldn’t also work.
It also protects innocent individuals whose names may be implicated in a grand jury investigation but who will never be indicted.
Protecting the innocent. Now that is a justification I can get behind.
Much of the current discussion about loosening grand jury secrecy — or reforming the grand jury system in other ways — is in reaction to suspicions about the grand jury that did not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, or the grand jury that no-billed NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. But as Elie Mystal points out, grand jury investigations of cops are the exception, not the rule:
We gain nothing, but stand to lose a lot by releasing grand jury testimony. In the Ferguson and Garner situations, we’re dealing with cops as potential defendants. And that’s why the system favored them and the prosecutors did everything they could to help them. In most situations grand juries are dealing with regular people who are about to be totally railroaded by the system. Innocent or guilty, most grand jury testimony involves a prosecutor, unhinged from any kind of representation on behalf of the defense, painting the worst possible picture of the defendant in order to force an indictment. Grand juries aren’t about truth, they are about giving prosecutors leverage to force a defendant into a settlement on crimes they may or may not have committed.
You want to set a precedent where you make that kind of crap public? Are you insane? You want to give prosecutors more power to sully the name of potentially innocent people as they preen for the cameras and try to do things like run for Congress?
Fair enough, and I’m inclined to agree. Except…
Why are the Ferguson grand jurors still muzzled? All of the witnesses have been heard, the defendant has not fled, and all of the grand jury testimony has been made public. At this point, I think all that is being protected by the policy of grand jury secrecy is the identities of the witnesses and the deliberations of the grand jurors. I’m not convinced that the government’s interest in protecting either of those things is strong enough to overcome our default preference for free speech and transparency. Why should we only hear the prosecutor’s version of what happened in the grand jury hearings?
Arguably, we shouldn’t go changing the rules retroactively, since witnesses and grand jurors have presumably relied on the secrecy guarantees, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right policy, and that’s not a reason to keep doing things the same way in the future. Once the grand jury testimony is public, I can’t see much justification for keeping the grand jurors from talking about it.
(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield.)