The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

December 7, 2013

Such panels lack authority, officials say

By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer

MERCER — Those are among the rights enshrined in the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions.

But the people themselves have no authority to formally accuse anyone of anything, both officials say.

“Investigative power lies with the police, the district attorney and the attorney general,” Judge Thomas R. Dobson said, rejecting any claim that the people have the right to convene grand juries, investigate cases and make presentments of their findings to the district attorney for prosecution in court.

The nation’s founders set up its government with executive, legislative and judicial branches and the use of grand juries has changed since the 18th century, he said.

“There are statutory provisions that set out when and how charges can be brought,” Dobson said. “It’s not complicated.”

In Pennsylvania, the constitutional convention held in 1968 “did away with the need for grand juries as they were formerly used,” he said. “Grand juries can still be organized, but how and when they operate is described and regulated by statute.”

The recent interest by some people in Pennsylvania and other states to reinstate common law grand juries may be a political issue, but those advocates’ claims - largely driven by Internet websites - that statutory law is invalid are their political opinions, not the law, Dobson said.

Any such grand juries that may be formed could expose members to prosecution if they violate the law, he said.

“I would advise them to speak with counsel,” Dobson said. “There is no authority under the law for them to force people to come and speak with them. Trying to compel people to answer their questions may well violate the criminal statutes of the commonwealth.”

In a National Liberty Alliance video shown Thursday to a group of people who voted to empanel such a jury, website founder John Darash claimed authority for them by citing a 1992 Supreme Court case, United States v. Willams, where Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, described a grand jury as “a constitutional fixture in its own right” ... “serving as a kind of buffer or referee between the government and the people.”

District Attorney Robert G. Kochems scoffed at that interpretation of the case which he said centered not on grand juries but on investigative methods used by a federal agency.

“The language they are claiming as authority for themselves is a comparison statement explaining the difference between the way a government agency was doing its investigations and how a grand jury operates,” Kochems said. “They took it out of context so they got the law wrong, and they went off the deep end from there.”

Dobson and Kochems both said people who want to reform government can work through channels that always have been open to them to amend the Constitution if they think that’s needed. They can also run for office themselves.

“These are people who are either crazy or too lazy to run for the political offices they want to influence,” Kochems said. “If you want to have a role in government, then you have to do some work and spend some of your money to put your ideas in front of others to see if they agree with you and will support you. That’s our electoral process.”

Kochem said advocates of grand jury reinstatement are “taking advantage of newspaper attention they don’t deserve to make the argument that the courts should accept their filings, which isn’t the case. Then they want to jump up and down and call attention to themselves when their efforts lead nowhere.”