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Bill could harm justice system

We really weren’t surprised to learn that the Texas Senate had approved a bill that would make every facet of a grand jury membership secret, including the names of the grand jurors.

In fact, considering recent events, we would have found it surprising if Senate Bill 834 had not been approved.

An analysis of the bill, 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.

Estes 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 also said the recent Kaufman County murders showed the need for the law, although SB 834 was filed nearly a month before District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were shot. Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was shot Jan. 31.

We can appreciate Estes’ concern for the safety of civic-minded citizens, but we don’t believe this bill — or any other measure endorsing government secrecy — is in the best interest of the people of Texas.

We side with the Texas Press Association, which opposes the bill.

“We stand for open government in every branch,” said Donnis Baggett, the trade group’s executive vice president. “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, Baggett added, and there’s no way to know that if the names are kept secret.

After the bill was heard in committee, senators added a 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.

Senate Bill 834 has no companion in the Texas House, which must consider the matter before it can become law.

We encourage legislators to leave well enough alone. Despite any good intentions, Senate Bill 834 could severely undermine the justice system.

An individual’s right to a fair trial by a jury of his or her peers should be protected — we cannot allow any hastily conceived legislation to put it at risk.