Better late than never: grand jury material of historical value

Grand jury information is one of the most sought-after types of information that the public cannot see generally under the federal FOIA. Think spies, organized crime, and sports stars accused of cheating through performance-enhancing drugs. So it is welcome to see the Justice Department recently announce a move to open the door on grand juries to the public just a little more.

American laws and courts have long recognized that grand jury information merits secrecy, but several recent cases developing a “historical significance” exception have led the Department of Justice to propose codifying the terms under which courts may release such material. Traditionally, grand jury information has been protected – indefinitely – by Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which provides five specific exceptions. Rule 6(e) is of interest to us because it is one of the most widely- and frequently-used statutory exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), called a “b(3)” after the subsection of FOIA permitting such additional exemptions.

In an October 19 letter, Attorney General Eric Holder recognized that litigants had won the release of grand jury information regarding several cases of historical significance: the Alger Hiss case (released in 1999), the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (2008), a 1964 jury-tampering prosecution of Jimmy Hoffa (Sr.) (2009), and testimony from ex-President Richard M. Nixon in a 1975 case involving Watergate (2011).

Here’s the problem: As Holder noted, none of these releases fell under any of the existing exemptions to secrecy under Rule 6(e). So, whether the courts will release grand jury information has become entirely unpredictable, based solely on the terms of the statute. To provide more clarity, Holder proposes to permit disclosure after thirty years – under certain conditions – and require disclosure after seventy-five years. (As Steve Aftergood noted, the thirty-year time period proposed dovetails neatly with the disclosures already ordered by courts.)

While the substance of this issue might not be a central concern of ours at SGI, it does involve several issues of interest to us:

  • We are pleased to see courts and DOJ in preliminary agreement that an open-ended rule conferring secrecy can be weighed against the public interest in government-held information of historical significance.
  • We are glad that the OPEN Government Act of 2007 amended FOIA to require agencies to provide more detailed information about their usage of each b(3) exemption statute, which enables us to gauge the importance of provisions such as Rule 6(e).
  • We are also glad to see more public attention to, and consideration of, records of historical significance – and efforts to obtain information that can help us understand more about our nation and our history.

By the way, if anyone has run into a Rule 6(e)-based FOIA denial that seems unwarranted, drop us a line.

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