Many commentators in the United States—including a number of GAB contributors—have lamented the lack of robust anticorruption investigations at the state level, and have advocated the creation or strengthening of state-level anticorruption commissions (see, for example, here, here, and here). While there is much to be said for these proposals, the existing commentary often overlooks the fact that states already have a powerful institution with the potential to perform many of the functions that reformers hope to vest with the state commissions. That institution is the state grand jury.
When most people hear the phrase “grand jury,” if they know the term at all, they probably imagine a scene from some TV crime show where a prosecutor endeavors to persuade a group of average citizens to indict someone that the prosecutor believes has committed a crime. And indeed in most states, grand juries’ principal function is to determine whether a state prosecutor has “probable cause” to put a defendant on trial. (After the trial beings, a different jury—the “petit jury”—decides whether the defendant is actually guilty.) But grand juries don’t just evaluate the prosecutor’s evidence at the indictment stage. Grand juries also have robust investigatory powers of their own. Like some state anticorruption commissions, state grand juries have the authority to subpoena documents or other tangible things. But unlike state anticorruption commissions, state grand juries can also compel witnesses to testify, and can hold those who refuse in contempt. (Indeed, while witnesses can invoke their constitutional right against self-incrimination to refuse to testify in a criminal trial, no such right exists in a grand jury investigation.) Moreover, grand juries can not only return criminal indictments (their more familiar function), but grand juries can also issue public reports about unethical and unsavory behavior.
If wielded properly, these immense powers could help unearth evidence of wrongdoing. Moreover, grand juries’ investigative powers may be especially valuable in cases involving corruption. While it might seem radical to propose that grand juries exercise these existing but largely moribund powers to assume the role of anticorruption watchdog, this would in fact be a return to one of the grand juries’ traditional functions.