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Do Courts Have Inherent Authority to Release Secret Grand Jury Materials?

CRS Legal Sidebar via FAS – Do Courts Have Inherent Authority to Release Secret Grand Jury Materials? Michael A. Foster, Legislative Attorney, October 5, 2018. “The U.S. Constitution requires that any prosecution of a serious federal crime be initiated by “ a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” The “[g]rand [j]ury” contemplated by the Constitution is a temporary, citizen-comprised body that obtains evidence and considers whether it is sufficient to justify criminal charges in a particular case. Though a grand jury works with federal prosecutors and functions under judicial auspices, it is considered an independent“ constitutional fixture in its own right ” that“ belongs to no branch of the institutional Government, serving as a kind of buffer…between the Government and the people.” One long-established principle that has been deemed essential to the grand jury’s functioning and independence is that matters occurring before it are to be kept secret. Secrecy prevents those under scrutiny from fleeing or importuning the grand jurors, encourages full disclosure by witnesses, and protects the innocent from unwarranted prosecution. For these and other reasons, prosecutors, the jurors themselves, and most others involved in grand jury proceedings are generally prohibited from revealing “such matters as the identities or addresses of witnesses or jurors, the substance of testimony, the strategy or direction of the investigation, the deliberations or questions of jurors, and the like.” The prohibition endures even after a grand jury’s work is completed. That said, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e), which enshrines the traditional rule of grand jury secrecy, establishes exceptions that allow grand jury materials (such as transcripts of witness testimony) to be disclosed to certain outside parties in limited circumstances. Some of these exceptions allow for automatic disclosure—to necessary government personnel, for example—but many of the exceptions require that disclosure be authorized by the federal di strict court in the jurisdiction where the jury is convened, as the court ultimately has some degree of “supervisory authority” over the grand jury. Rule6(e)(3)(E) provides in relevant part that the court“ may authorize disclosure . . . of a grand-jury matter” (1) preliminarily to or in connection with a judicial proceeding; (2) to a defendant who shows grounds may exist to dismiss the indictment because of something that occurred before the grand jury; or (3) at the request of the government, to a foreign court or prosecutor or to an “appropriate” state, state-subdivision, Indian tribal, military, or foreign government official for the purpose of enforcing or investigating a violation of the respective jurisdiction’s criminal law. Persons seeking court authorization under one of these exceptions must make a “strong showing of particularized need” that “outweighs the public interest in secrecy.”

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