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Bill to keep grand jurors’ names secret

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

The Texas Senate recently approved a bill that would make every facet of a grand jury membership secret, including the names of the grand jurors.

An analysis of Senate Bill 834, introduced by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, cites similar secrecy for members of federal grand juries and state grand juries in Arizona, Florida, New York and Utah.

In an interview Wednesday, Estes said he was working with the North Texas Crime Commission on the legislation.

“My whole aspect in this is to make sure people who serve in this capacity are safe,” Estes said.

He pointed to the popularity of smartphones and social media, saying those tools could help someone discover more after knowing a grand juror’s name. He said the Kaufman County murders showed the need for the law, although SB 834 was filed Feb. 26, nearly a month before District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were shot. Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was shot Jan. 31.

In 1999, Texas shielded the personal information of grand jurors, including address, and telephone, Social Security and driver’s license numbers. But unlike federal law and the laws governing grand juries in most other states, Texas still allows the key-man system of grand jury selection.

The method, used in counties throughout much of the state, uses a judge-appointed commission — not random selection — to determine who sits on grand juries.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the key-man system is constitutional but vulnerable to abuse. Court rulings and academic studies have found the system tends to favor the powerful and disenfranchise racial minorities, the poor, women and the young. Those factors led other states and the federal government to abandon the system in favor of a more random process.

Only Texas and California still permit key-man.

The Texas Bar Association has not taken a position on the bill, according to Kim Davey, the group’s public information director.

But the Texas Press Association opposes the bill, according to Donnis Baggett, the trade group’s executive vice president.

“We stand for open government in every branch,” Baggett said. “The judicial system starts with the grand jury. In a free society, we are not supposed to have secret tribunals. We aren’t supposed to have that kind of justice.”

A defendant should be indicted and tried by a jury of his or her peers, he added.

“How are you to know that if the names are kept secret?” Baggett said.

After the bill was heard in committee, senators added another subsection that would allow the defendant’s attorney to request demographic information — names, races, ethnicities and genders of the grand jurors — if the attorney intended to challenge the grand jury’s array.

Estes said the committee worked with criminal defense attorneys to carve out that exception, but he acknowledged it limited the disclosure to the defense team, which would not be allowed to reveal that information to any other party.

Baggett said that compromise does nothing for the civic-minded public.

“They have a need for that information as well,” Baggett said.

A Denton Record-Chronicle investigation into a Denton County grand jury in 2011 found many connections between the people who served and Mayor Mark Burroughs, who had alleged longtime City Hall critic Bob Clifton attempted to bribe him. The Denton County district attorney later dropped the felony bribery charge.

After SB 834 was heard in committee, the senators also voted to amend it with a related provision that changed another part of the Texas Local Government code that would make former jurors in district court, instead of former grand jurors, eligible for service on a committee that hears salary grievances for county employees.

The bill has no companion in the Texas House, which must consider the matter before it can become law.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.