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Judges Can Release Secret Grand Jury Records

By Ceylan Pumphrey, Esq. on February 14, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court has affirmed the right of federal judges to release grand jury records that are usually kept secret. The decision was made for a case in which an author and historian is requesting access to the federal grand jury inquiry into the lynching murders of two African-American couples in 1946.

The Reason for the Court's Decision

In its decision, the majority on the 11th Circuit panel said the case deserved attention because of its role in U.S. history. More specifically, a judge on the panel said that "[c]ompared to the journalist or the family member of a victim that seeks access to the details of a salacious unsolved crime, the...[l]ynching is historically significant because it is closely tied to the national civil rights movement."

Not a Unanimous Decision

While in the minority, James Graham, an Ohio-based district court judge serving on the panel, warned that the ruling would create a variety of problems because it erodes the tradition of keeping grand jury testimony and deliberations secret. Graham said, "[t]hat an event has exceptional historical significance cuts both ways" since it suggests a continued interest in the event, which implies a continued need for secrecy.

Why Such an Interest in This Decision?

Legal experts are particularly interested in this decision because it could potentially impact the Justice Department's ability to release the results of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the alleged ties between Russia and the Trump campaign to the public. While an 11th Circuit ruling likely wouldn't serve as binding precedent for Mueller's inquiry, supports of the investigation are interested in courts signaling that grand jury materials can be released to the public in extraordinary cases and the exceptions in federal court rules isn't an all-inclusive list.

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