Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reject bill to make grand juror names permanently secret

The Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Monday will hear legislation (SB 834 by Estes) to make grand juror names permanently secret, a measure Grits can hardly believe escaped the Senate and which deserves a swift killing in the House. Grits had blasted the bill earlier on a number of fronts, declaring that:
If the grand jury system - which already provides little if any restraint and generally serves as a rubber stamp for whatever decisions prosecutors have already made - becomes a complete secret run by anonymous members whose names will never be released, IMO they should probably just scrap it as farce and a waste of time. Right now, perhaps it's true prosecutors can get grand jurors to indict a ham sandwich. But if we can't know who approved (read: rubber stamped) prosecution decisions and 97% of cases end in plea bargains, it become increasingly difficult to tell if there's any meat in the sandwich at all.
Conservative blogger Big Jolly then took the matter to the next level, describing important public-interest stories from the Denton Record Chronicle (pdf) and the Houston Chronicle which would not have been possible if Sen. Estes' secrecy bill were the law of the land. (The nine-year old Houston piece in particular unpacks the law-enforcement biases in backgrounds of many Harris County grand jurors with the assistance of academic researchers, an investigative method and story that Grits suspects could be replicated nearly anywhere.) Jolly also laments that, if Estes' bill became law, the public could never have known last year about political connections between then-challenger Mike Anderson and a so-called "runaway" grand jury investigating former DA Pat Lykos (no charges were ever filed).

Jolly points out that Texas is one of only two states still using the "key man" system to appoint grand jurors, where a judge appoints commissioners who in turn appoint the grand jurors. That means transparency about who serves is important here even more than in other states. The key-man system presents a much greater risk of cronyism.

Only the Texas Defender Service testified against the bill in the Senate, with a slew of prosecutors supporting it. (Hard to believe the criminal defense bar didn't show up on that one, or the press.) But even if committee testimony doesn't fully explicate the problems with this bill, one hopes the House committee or their staff will review the critiques from Grits and Jolly as well as the news stories out of Denton (pdf) and Houston to see what we'd be giving up if they make grand juror names secret. Bad idea; bad bill.

RELATED: The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee already approved a measure requiring greater grand-jury transparency: HB 3334 by Rep. Bryan Hughes which would increase accountability of grand juries by requiring that their interviews with all witnesses be recorded, not just defendants. That bill passed the House this week and has been referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Will the same House committee members who wanted grand-juror testimony recorded think that grand-juror names should never be publicly known? I suppose one could hold both views simultaneously, but it seems like a mildly incongruous position. If the committee thought grand juries needed more transparency a month or so ago when voting on Hughes' bill, will they now act to further lower the cloud of secrecy surrounding grand jury membership? We will soon see.


Anonymous said...

Today GFB says that the grand jury process "...generally serves as a rubber stamp for whatever decisions prosecutors have already made..."

However, just a week ago GFB accepted the grand jury indictment of Anna Jimenez in Jackson County as not only justified on its face but also for all intents and purposes an indication of guilt.

One would hope that this about-face change in perspective reflects a truly transformative realization of the way the world really works, as opposed to, say, just a poorly camouflaged example of situational hypocrisy in order to advance an agenda-of-the-moment.

One would hope...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:59: Since you've mischaracterized my views on Jimenez, your points are irrelevant. Straw men are easy to argue against but it doesn't make what you say accurate or credible.

How does admitting that grand juries are a prosecutorial rubber stamp imply that I shouldn't acknowledge Jimenez's indictment? What's the connection. I see no "about face." If your point is she may not be guilty, that jibes with the idea that grand juries aren't meaningful screens to prosecutorial ambition.

Otherwise, believe it or not, I posted the Jimenez indictment and news stories not to influence you or others nor to spin things for or against Jimenez (e.g., I included a link to her boss defending her), but for my own benefit so I could find the links again later. It was a short post that mainly linked to other sources for reference. Spin it how you like. Nobody really cares what anonymous blog commenters think.

Anonymous said...

This bill is bad for our State. Big Jolly and GFB are also correct that this bill needs to be trashed. We all know what took place in Houston the last election.

Anonymous said...

The reason so many police officers get a free ride and a no-bill is that their brethren are prominently placed as grand jurors, and oftentimes will influence or intimidate fellow grand jurors to go along with their views. Kinda like having a drug addict serve as foreperson and advocating for those caught with drugs. Indeed, some states, such as California, realize the vested self-interest an officer has and bar them from serving as grand jurors.