Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Contempt for the Average American

A number of Republicans and Republican supporters are claiming that we the people of the United States cannot be trusted to competently perform the duties entrusted to us when we sit on Grand Juries.

Former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Tom Delay (R- Tex), and other Republicans, are insisting that the Grand Jury system does not work. The reason it does not work is because the people who sit on Grand Juries -- average American citizens like you and me -- are too incompetent to do the job entrusted to us.

The Plot

DeLay is protesting that his recent indictment on charges of illegally funneling $155,000 in corporate contributions to Republican candidates in Texas is the product of a Democratic district attorney out for “political retribution”.

He claims that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was aiming to use House rule that a party leader must resign that leadership position if indicted. According to DeLay and his defenders, Earle is not really seeking to convict DeLay, only force him from power in the House.

However, District Attorneys are not empowered to indict people. They have to present their evidence to a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury has to decide whether there is enough evidence for a trial.

So, if DeLay is correct in saying that the indictment was concocted for political reasons, he must either think that the Grand Jury is a part of this conspiracy, or that its members are not competent to do the job that Grand Juries are supposed to do – which is to protect us from overzealous government officials.

Actually, DeLay has to say that two separate Grand Juries were incompetent. One grand jury handed down the first indictment on September 28th, while a second grand jury handed down separate indictments on October 4th.

This causes me to ask the question of whether DeLay and his defenders believe that it is even possible to have a competent Grand Jury capable of doing the job assigned to it.

The Purpose of Grand Juries

The purpose of Grand Juries is to prevent the government from harassing citizens with frequent, unfounded, criminal accusations. They did not want a state where government officials can arrest a person week after week on a different trumped-up criminal charge, playing havoc with the life of a citizen who could not fight back.

To prevent this abuse, the Founding Fathers enacted the 5th Amendment that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” Several state constitutions follow the same rules.

In principle, the Grand Jury allows us, as free citizens, to live without the fear of arbitrary government arrest and imprisonment. The government cannot take us whenever it wants. It must, instead, present its evidence to a collection of fellow citizens and prove to those citizens that it has enough reason to demand our arrest.

Therefore, the people who sit on Grand Juries have a duty. They are not rubber stamps for the District Attorney’s office. If all we wanted was a rubber stamp, we could buy one that was a lot less expensive and inconvenient than a Grand Jury. Instead, a Grand Jury is a quality-control department for the criminal justice system. Their job is to review the District Attorney's work and make sure that it is up to standards, and pass only that work that meets or exceeds those standards.

Just to be clear; the people on a Grand Jury do not decide guilt or innocence. Their job is to make sure that the prosecutor has good reason to go after a fellow citizen -- to prevent the harassment and social disruption of a arbitrary arrests and trials. Their job is to prevent bad trials from taking place.

In light of this, whenever DeLay and his defenders say that these indictments represent a politically motivated attack by a partisan Democrat against a powerful Republican, they also have to be saying that the Grand Juries that handed down these indictments did not do their job. These Republicans have to be understood as saying that common people are not to be trusted in doing the job entrusted to them by the Constitution of the United States.

In fact, anybody who protests an indictment is saying that the Grand Jury that handed down the indictment was incompetent.

It is one thing to say, "Okay, now that I have been indicted, once you hear my side of the story, you will know that I am innocent." It is something else to say, "Even before you heard my side of the story, you should have known that there was no good reason to doubt my innocence."

The first comment says that the Grand Jury did its duty. The second comment accuses the Grand Jury of incompetence.

DeLay's Chorus

DeLay is not the only one making statements that implies that American citizens cannot perform the duties of manning Grand Juries competently. Robert Novak, in his nationally syndicated column, wrote that, “Democrats were . . . determined to use the criminal process to remove from power so formidable an antagonist.”

This is exactly the types of abuse that Grand Juries are supposed to prevent. Therefore, if the Democrats are seeking to use this strategy, then Grand Juries cannot be trusted to do their duty when these types of situations arise.

Representative Christopher Shays (R – Conn) bluntly stated that prosecutors can persuade a grand jury to “indict a tomato”. That is to say that prosecutors can convince us – you and me – to indict a tomato.

Maybe he is right. Maybe it is only vanity and ego that prevents me from seeing how easily I can be convinced to indict a tomato. Maybe Shays is identifying one of those ugly truths that people just do not want to hear.

Clearly, Tom Delay, Robert Novak, and Christopher Shays have contempt for our ability to deal intelligently and competently with the responsibilities handed to us when we sit on Grand Juries.

The question that remains unanswered is whether their contempt for our abilities is justified or unjustified.

2 comments:

Martin Mapes said...

I haven't heard this comment anywhere else, but it is right on target. Makes me wonder if maybe DeLay wasn't paying attention during his high-school civics class.

Doug S. said...

(Yes, this is an old post, but I've gotta respond anyway.)

The problem is that a Grand Jury only ever hears from the prosecutor. If the prosecutor is lying his ass off, the grand jury has no way of knowing that. If the prosecutor happens to leave out the highly relevant fact that the accused was on the other side of the world when the crime took place, the grand jury has no way of knowing that. Selective presentation of facts can be used to construct seemingly sound arguments for just about anything, especially if you're willing to lie about what the facts actually are. A Grand Jury is a check on the power of a prosecutor, but it is a very weak one. A more practical check is that prosecutors have various incentives not to charge people they believe can't be convicted.