Legal fight for Eric Garner grand jury records continues as appellate court denies disclosure

Tom Isler | Secret Courts | News | July 31, 2015

Grand jury records in the Eric Garner case should remain sealed, a New York appellate court ruled on Wednesday.

The organizations seeking access to the records — the Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Staten Island branch of the NAACP, and the Office of the Public Advocate for New York City—have announced they will continue to fight for the release of the records. The NYCLU and the Public Advocate announced their intentions to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York. The other groups are weighing their options.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 29 other news organizations, had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to New York’s Appellate Division, Second Department, urging disclosure.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court that none of the organizations had demonstrated a “compelling and particularized need” for the materials, the standard that must be met for release of grand jury materials, which are usually secret. And although the court did not need to reach the issue, the court went out of its way to state that “the public interest in disclosure was outweighed by the dangers inherent in violating the secrecy of the grand jury proceeding.”

The court also ruled that the Public Advocate lacked capacity to challenge the grand jury secrecy, because the office’s powers, set forth in the New York City Charter, do not include “oversight of constitutionally established offices such as county district attorneys and the courts.”

If a further appeal is unsuccessful, the organizations may shift their focus to changing the law regarding grand juries. Earlier this year, the chief judge of the state of New York, Jonathan Lippman, said that there is an “obvious” need for “significant change in grand jury practices and protocols,” and he submitted a legislative proposal to change grand jury proceedings that involve police-civilian encounters. Other commentators have called for legislative solutions, too.