Rule of Law

McKeever v. Barr

In McKeever v. Barr, the Supreme Court considered if it should hear a case that raises the question of whether courts have inherent authority to release historically significant grand jury materials.  This case could have significant implications for the transparency of our legal system and our ability to understand important historical events in our nation’s history.

Case Summary

Petitioner Stuart A. McKeever is a writer and researcher who has been studying the 1956 murder of Columbia University lecturer Jesús de Galíndez, who was allegedly killed by henchmen of then-dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo.  In 1957, a federal grand jury was impaneled in the District of Columbia to review the case, but it ended without any public disclosure of information that would reveal what happened to Galíndez and who was responsible for his death.  In 2013, McKeever filed a pro se motion asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to release the records of the grand jury proceedings due to their historical significance.  The district court ruled in favor of McKeever, but the D.C. Circuit reversed.  In September 2019, McKeever filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court.

In October 2019, CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to hear this case.  First, the brief explains that the tradition of maintaining the secrecy of grand jury proceedings is not absolute, and courts have regularly disclosed grand jury materials in appropriate circumstances throughout American history, both before and after the adoption of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Second, the brief argues that the Federal Rules did not abrogate courts’ inherent authority to release grand jury materials.  For one thing, the text of those Rules does not clearly demonstrate that purpose. Rule 6(e) requires that “[n]o obligation of secrecy may be imposed on any person except in accordance with Rule 6(e)(2)(B),” and Rule 6(e)(2)(B) does not include district court judges in its list of individuals who “must not disclose a matter occurring before the grand jury.”  Moreover, Rule 6(e)(3)(E) identifies certain circumstances in which district courts “may” disclose grand jury information but does not state that those are the only circumstances in which district courts may disclose grand jury information.

The Advisory Committee history confirms this interpretation.  The Committee made clear when the Rules were enacted that it intended to “continue the traditional practice of secrecy on the part of members of the grand jury, except when the court permits a disclosure.”  Moreover, the advisory committee considered the very question at issue here in 2011 and concluded that “in the rare cases where disclosure of historic materials had been sought, the district judges acted reasonably in referring to their inherent authority.”

Finally, the brief argues that district courts should be permitted to exercise their inherent authority to disclose materials of historical importance.  The typical justifications for the secrecy of grand jury records—such as incentivizing witnesses to testify and preventing defendants from fleeing—are necessarily less salient decades after cases are closed.  And those justifications are clearly outweighed where records of critical moments in our nation’s history are shrouded by the veil of grand jury secrecy.

Case Timeline