Supreme Court Turns Away Dispute Over Whether Grand Jury Material Can Be Disclosed in Rare Matters

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
January 21, 2020 Updated: January 21, 2020

The Supreme Court on Jan. 21 refused to hear a case on whether federal judges have the authority to disclose secret grand jury material in extraordinary circumstances.

The top court rejected a request to review (pdf) an appeal brought by an 82-year-old researcher who is seeking grand jury materials related to the 1956 disappearance of Columbia University scholar Jesús de Galíndez. Stuart McKeever, who devoted 40 years investigating the disappearance, argues that the Galíndez case is historically significant and that there is a strong public interest for the release of the secret information.

The case, cited as McKeever v. Barr, doesn’t have bearing on an ongoing legal effort by House Democrats to gain access to grand jury material from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling of the 2016 presidential election. That case is currently being argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In the case at hand, McKeever is seeking grand jury information as part of his investigation for his book on the topic. He filed a motion in 2013 asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which had convened and supervised the relevant grand jury 60 years ago, to release the information.

Along with public interest, he argued that the long passage of time had also eliminated any need for continued secrecy.

“Those disclosures can vindicate important public values of transparency and historical understanding, and they advance public confidence in the judicial system,” McKeever argued in his petition (pdf).

Under the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure, grand jury information is to be kept secret unless in specific situations outlined in Rule 6(e) of the law. Over the years, different circuit courts have had different opinions on whether judges have inherent authority to release the information.

The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against McKeever, saying that judges don’t have authority outside of the exceptions provided in Rule 6(e).

While declining to take up the case (pdf), Justice Stephen Breyer acknowledged that the circuit courts are split on the issue, but added that the advisory committee for the federal rules of criminal procedures is best placed to shed some light on the conflict.

“Whether district courts retain authority to release grand jury material outside those situations specifically enumerated in the Rules, or in situations like this, is an important question,” Breyer said. “It is one I think the Rules Committee both can and should revisit.”

Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.