GJ Secrecy Protects Wrong-Doers

by Lou Binninger

In a June 25, 2018 letter addressed to judges Brian Aronson and Sarah Heckman, the Sutter County Grand Jurors resigned in protest saying “… we were prevented from fulfilling our duty as watchdog for Sutter County.”

Their 2017-18 report due by the end of June had twice been rejected and edited by Judge Aronson, so 17 members of the Grand Jury (GJ) walked-out after refusing to sign the Aronson version. The GJ report traditionally is released to the public before June 30 following jury members signing the document and before a new jury is impaneled.

Judge Aronson took the oversight of the jury from Judge Sarah Heckman mid-stream as troubles developed with the unsavory content of the report. Meanwhile, Judge Aronson was running for another four-year term on the Superior Court bench.

Being unopposed, Aronson won the June primary but just 120 days later after twice refusing to approve the Grand Jury’s version of its investigations withdrew from serving his fifth four-year term beginning January 1, 2019. Minus the GJ fiasco, the “retirement” would be considered strange and erratic short of a major health crisis. What changed for the judge in 120 days?

 The Aronson move certainly deprived the voters of the opportunity to choose the next judge.

The official massaged explanation for the GJ report not being released to the public (the little people) was that jury members refused to sign the document. That’s kind of like saying she got pregnant from using the drinking fountain. However, Sutter County department heads, Supervisors, City of Yuba City officials and a few privileged ones, the local aristocracy, got a copy.

GJ members swear an oath of confidentiality or secrecy regarding the proceedings and that is currently restraining them from exposing wrong-doing, unethical and possible criminal behavior on the part of local officials.

Is that the purpose of the oath and should people be manipulated by oaths to conceal criminal or crooked acts? Not some, but all jury members resigned rather than sign Aronson’s “doctored” report.

The Valparaiso University Spring 1989 Law Review, “Grand Jury Secrecy  v. The First Amendment: A Case for Press Interviews of Grand Jurors” gives numerous reasons why GJ secrecy should not be ironclad.

“Attempting to justify grand jury secrecy from the defendant's view-point, such as the protection of individuals groundlessly accused, is unconvincing. Grand jury secrecy is not designed for the benefit of the defendant. In England, the argument that the grand jury might protect the accused from oppression was not convincing enough to keep the grand jury from being abolished. In America, the press routinely reports on individuals named in lawsuits or charged with criminal offenses, despite the fact that many of these actions do not result in the assessment of liability or a criminal conviction.” (America’s Grand Jury was modeled after England’s.)

“Perhaps this reporting occurs partly because our judicial system is founded on the concept that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. A grand jury indictment (or finding – author added) is nothing more than an accusation. Obviously some individuals ignore this concept. When all considerations are taken into account, however, the attempted protection of falsely accused individuals is insufficient to warrant maintaining such a hard line on secrecy that press interviews of grand jurors are forever prohibited.”

The Valparaiso Review then addresses abuse and manipulation by prosecutors, “One of the major reasons for advocating press access to grand jurors is to combat the well-documented and numerous instances of abuse that strict secrecy has produced. The grand jury, often esteemed as a bulwark of freedom, is commonly and unethically manipulated by prosecutors in order to benefit his or her own personal motives.”

“Recognizing the potential for abuse, Supreme Court Justice Douglas included in a dissent former U.S. District Court Judge William Campbell's telling statement: ‘Any experienced prosecutor will admit that he can indict anybody at any time for almost anything before any grand jury. Thus, secrecy is a tempting invitation to prosecutors to indict whomever they choose and thereby make a mockery of justice. Recognizing these problems, the Supreme Court has stated that the Constitution should not tolerate the transformation of the grand jury into an instrument of oppression. This warning has not stopped the abuse.”

In Sutter County’s case the GJ’s investigation of the District Attorney and the County Counsel’s misbehavior along with other governing misdeeds are the crux of Judge Aronson’s move to conceal, manipulate, protect, and oppress, thus bringing a mockery to Sutter County governance.