[UPDATED] Grand Jury: The Sword and the Shield

Retired Sun-Sentinel reporter Joe Kollin sent the Pulp this serious piece of righteousness about the state grand jury. I'm going to go ahead and call for it: Grand jurors should fire State Attorney Michael Satz as their "legal advisor" and hire an attorney who wants to do the job instead. 

Below is Kollin's important piece, which wasn't published by either the Miami Herald or his own former newspaper. Their loss.

[UPDATED: The State Attorney's Office forwarded the Pulp the instructions read to the Broward Grand Jury and it included all of the language below. So it is apparent that the grand jury gets the information. Still, a change of counsel at the grand jury (doesn't Satz have enough power?) could provide a truly independent outlet to clean up government, instead of just a rubber stamp for prosecutors.]

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So a blue-ribbon panel of politically connected Broward residents has been working since last month (Feb. 27) on an ethics code for county commissioners.

Doesn't anyone realize that we already have a panel of regular, ordinary citizens with the duty to watch over ALL Broward elected and non-elected officials, not just county commissioners?

And the existing panel isn't a toothless lion. It has the power to issue subpoenas, jail those who refuse to testify and force public officials, such as mayors, city clerks, supervisor of election and county commissioners, to face criminal charges that could result in prison time. If only the panel members knew it. 

I'm talking about the grand jury, a panel of 18 21 Broward residents selected at random every six months from those called for regular jury duty. The latest term began on March 10. 

Although best known as a group that indicts criminal suspects for first-degree murder, the grand jury has another, long-established duty that no one in Broward seems to know about: the power to investigate public officials and to "inquire whether those officials are incompetent or lax in the performance of their duties." 

Those words are part of the instructions that the Florida Supreme Court wants judges to read to all newly empaneled grand jurors because, as the court adds, "the searching eye and inquiring mind of the grand jury is an effective deterrent to evil and

corruption; no officer or agency of government is above or beyond the reach of the grand jury." 

Further, it adds, the grand jury is both "a sword and a shield; a sword because the power of the grand jury has a chilling and deterrent effect on those who violate the law; it is a shield because of its power and duty to protect the innocent against persecution."

In the handbook it wants new grand jurors to receive, the court adds, "The importance of the grand jury's power is emphasized by the fact that it is one of the most independent bodies known to the law." 

See for yourself what grand juries should be told:

www.floridasupremecourt.org/jury_instructions/chapters/chapter31/flgrandjuryinstructions.rtf.

www.floridasupremecourt.org/jury_instructions/chapters/chapter30/flgrandjuryhandbook.rtf.

The grand jury's duty to investigate public officials should be such common knowledge that any resident of a county who believes an official is violating legal or ethical requirements knows he or she has a place to report it. Investigations are conducted in secret so untrue allegations won't damage an innocent official's reputation.

It is the knowledge that their offenses can so easily be reported along with the grand jury's power to investigate those reports that should be keeping public officials on the up and up. But how often do grand juries in Broward investigate public officials and issues of public interest? Almost never. Could that be why Broward's public officials have no reason to watch their behinds; they know how unlikely it is that they will be investigated? 

Grand jurors should consider using another of their powers: fire the state attorney and hire their own legal adviser at taxpayers' expense.  It's been done often in other Florida counties. Even state attorneys aren't above being investigated and indicted by a grand jury, which is why the state's official Rules of Criminal Procedure call the grand jury a "check" on prosecutors.

Maybe the new ethics committee could look into why the Broward grand jury hasn't served as the required sword and shield for Broward residents.

Joe Kollin, a Fort Lauderdale resident, was a reporter for Florida newspapers for 42 years. He retired in July 2008.


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