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Grand Jury Witnesses Get Absolute Immunity, Even When They Lie

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Discussions of the Supreme Court last week were focused on three things: (1) rehashing the healthcare argument, (2) speculating about the justices’ reaction to Justice Department’s judicial review homework assignment, and (3) the prison strip search decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington.

There was, however, a second opinion from the Court that we should discuss: Rehberg v. Paulk.

In Rehberg, the Court was asked to decide whether a complaining witness who provides false testimony in a grand jury proceeding is entitled to absolute immunity from federal civil rights lawsuit.

The case involved an accountant, Charles Rehberg, who anonymously reported unethical billing practices at a hospital in Albany, Georgia. The local district attorney's office, with the assistance of its chief investigator, James Paulk, launched a criminal investigation into Rehberg, allegedly as a favor to the hospital's leadership. Paulk falsely testified to a grand jury that the accountant had harassed doctors, before later admitting that he had no evidence to support that claim. The charges against Rehberg were dismissed. Rehberg tried to sue Paulk, but Paulk argued that he was protected by absolute immunity as a grand jury witness, reports Thomson Reuters News & Insight.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court ruled Monday that a witness who testifies before a grand jury is entitled to the same absolute immunity as a witness who testifies at trial. Justice Alito, writing for the Court, said that ruling otherwise could compromise the secrecy of grand jury proceedings by encouraging defendants to learn the identities of grand jury witnesses. "Especially in cases involving violent criminal organizations or other subjects who might retaliate against adverse grand jury witnesses, the threat of such disclosure might seriously undermine the grand jury process."

The Court concluded that absolute immunity encourages witnesses, who might otherwise be afraid of litigation, to testify. The Court also pointed out that witnesses who lie to the grand jury are subject to criminal prosecution.

While the Court's opinion certainly makes sense, we can't help sympathizing Rehberg. Lawyers aren't cheap, and he endured multiple grand jury proceedings because of Paul's testimony.

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