Grand Jury Secrecy vs. Civil Rights Plaintiff’s Right to Discovery

If your civil rights lawsuit alleged you were imprisoned for 24 years for a murder you didn’t commit and your conviction was based on the perjured testimony of a jailhouse informant, you might want to take a peek at the records of a grand jury investigation into the misuse of such informants during the time you were convicted.  But there’s that pesky issue of grand jury secrecy, so the trial court rules that you have no right to access those records.

This is what happened to Thomas Lee Goldstein, but he has a second chance after Goldstein v. Superior Court, case no. B199147 (2d Dist. August 23, 2007), in which the Court of Appeal reverses and remands to the trial court to consider Goldstein’s motion under the appropriate test.  The test announced in Douglas Oil Co. v. Petrol Stops Northewest (1979) 441 U.S. 211, 222 governs because Goldsteing is not seeking public disclosure and is willing to abide by a protective order.

Under that test, parties seeking grand jury material in federal court must make a particularized showing that (1) the material they seek is needed to avoid a possible injustice in another judicial proceeding, (2) the need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy, and (3) the request is structured to cover only material so needed.

This case also illustrates a principle of writ review.  As the court notes at footnote 1 of its opinion, Goldstein filed a contemporaneous appeal from the order denying his motion for access to the grand jury records.  The court decided the issue on review of the writ petition because “it appears the issue “is one of importance that should be resolved promptly.”