“Beam me up.” A recent front page story about a local group’s efforts to get Mercer County officials to acknowledge them as a “common law grand jury” recalled the “Star Trek” catchphrase that disgraced former Congressman Jim Traficant often appropriated to mock those who roam the halls of power.
The rest of the saying goes: “There’s no intelligent life here.”
It came to mind because we think the efforts of the Western Pennsylvania Liberty Forum – a regional arm of a national group pushing to restore common law grand juries – are, to put it bluntly, ridiculous.
That’s not to say that the folks who back the idea, which would put an unelected, self-selected group of people in the position to investigate crimes and present charges to local prosecutors, are stupid. We have no real idea of the intellectual capacity of members of the forum but the fact they’ve got their act together enough to try filing paperwork with a county office indicates some level of mental function.
A little research makes it clear that the day of the common law grand jury, originally conceived as a check on the power of nobles, kings and corrupt governments and exercised in this country as a matter of frontier efficiency, is long past. The common man isn’t threatened by aristocrats or monarchs (though this being Pennsylvania, corruption is a distinct possibility) and we now have a clear and well-established criminal justice system, which pretty much did away with the need for local grand juries in the last century.
And in any case, presentments or indictments a common law grand jury might issue would have to be followed up on by the district attorney, who is very much a part of the government that the backers of this idea clearly distrust and fear.
In Mercer County, that role is filled by Bob Kochems, who dismissed this idea out of hand. While he’d consider anything they sent him, he said the group has no legal standing.
“This is the French Revolution; this is not law. This is anarchy,” Kochems said.
It would allow accusations to be thrown at anyone, who could then throw them back on the initial accuser, breaking down any justice system, Kochems said. But the real target of this scheme isn’t the suspected drug dealer down the street or the guy everybody in the neighborhood thinks is a pervert. It’s the standard boogieman of the political fringe: The government. “The politicians aren’t going to change anything,” local organizer Sue Snyder said. “The people need to take a stand and make change happen.” The people, in this case, aren’t quite the mass of citizens that one might imagine when this kind of rhetoric is tossed out. The local group claims fewer than three dozen members, based on the vote tally to go ahead and file the grand jury paperwork. The statewide group’s website indicates fewer than 200 members.
It’s a classic case of a vocal minority who have been frustrated at the ballot box and who are appalled that government doesn’t perfectly reflect their values and biases turning to archaic and undemocratic fantasies instead of figuring out ways to win within the Constitutional system that they so often claim to love.