I was not aware that the title “Grand Jury” doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a jury empanelled to decide “grand” issues of law under US practice:
Over at the Daily Beast, Nick Gillespie attempts to bring religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies by describing what it was like to be hit with a ridiculous grand jury subpoena and unprincipled gag order. In response, several Daily Beast commenters trot out an argument I see now and then: “well, citizens on the grand jury thought that there were grounds to issue a subpoena.”
In fact, hell no, or if you prefer, bless your heart, no.
Let’s talk about how federal grand jury subpoenas actually work. These days the U.S. Attorney’s Office prints them from fillable pdfs. Given that we were still typing them when I left the USAO in 2000, they probably achieved this technical benchmark in 2012 or so. Assistant United States Attorneys — that is, snot-nosed punks like I was at twenty-six — issue a grand jury subpoena by filling it out, or more likely, asking their secretary to fill it out. Nominally, the subpoena is issued on behalf of the grand jury. But it is not by any stretch of the imagination, issued by the grand jury. The AUSA need not — and never does, in my experience — ask the grand jury for permission. When the target of the subpoena produces documents, most often the Assistant U.S. Attorney lets the case agent — some Special Agent of the FBI or DEA or whatever — hold on to them.
So is the grand jury involved at all? Well, sort of. If and when the federal prosecutor seeks an indictment relying in part on documents produced in response to a grand jury subpoena, they’ll summarize the results of the subpoena to the grand jury. But that could be years after the fact. Prior to that, the acknowledged “best practice” is for the AUSA to appear before the grand jury, tell the grand jurors that a subpoena has been issued on their behalf, briefly outline the nature of the investigation, and ask their consent for the case agent to maintain custody of the documents produced — which, because they have been produced “to the grand jury,” are governed by secrecy requirements.
Does that always happen? No. Even when it does happen, it’s rarely a significant check on the use or abuse of grand jury subpoenas. First, when I was an AUSA, I never once had a grand juror ask about why I was issuing such a subpoena or exactly what I got back. I don’t know that any of them ever looked up from their newspapers. The common practice is to make a report so perfunctory that the grand jurors have no context from which to determine whether a subpoena is appropriate — and you’d only be reporting the subpoena after the fact. Second, there’s often no continuity of grand jurors. In a small district you might have only one grand jury that meets once a week, and those grand jurors could, in theory, write things down in their notebooks and keep track of them over time. But in many districts there are many federal grand juries. In Los Angeles, for instance, there was a different one meeting every day of the week. AUSAs don’t necessarily report subpoenas from the same investigation to the same grand jury over time. And federal grand juries turn over after a year and a half (unless extended), which means that the grand jurors hearing you report a subpoena this year won’t necessarily be the same ones hearing you report the next subpoena in the investigation next year.