Superior Court Rules that Grand Jury Documents Are Not Available to the Public Under Common Law or First Amendment Rights to Access

In Re 2014 Allegheny County Investigating Grand Jury, 2018 PA Super 56 (Mar. 14, 2018)

On March 14, 2018, Judge Strassburger writing for a three-judge panel of the Superior Court ruled that records relating to grand jury proceedings are not subject to disclosure under either a common law right to access or the First Amendment.

In this issue of first impression, the panel made it clear that documents used in conjunction with a grand jury investigation may not be accessed. The TV station WPXI requested search warrants to further its ongoing report of alleged sexual relations between faculty and students at Allegheny County Plum High School. After numerous appeals and an eventual remand, the Superior Court finally determined that grand jury proceedings are not subject to either the common law or the First Amendment right of access.

In evaluating the common law right to public access, the court needed to determine whether the documents were public judicial documents, and if they were, whether the ‘presumption of openness is outweighed by circumstances warranting closure of the document to public inspection.’ The court ruled that the warrants were judicial, but not public. Judge Strassburger wrote “simply put, there is not, nor has there ever been, any public access to or oversight of grand jury proceedings such that a presumption of openness attaches to the documents” in question. The court also remarked that it was unsurprising that courts in other states had ruled similarly, since to function properly, secrecy is indispensable to grand jury investigations.

Next the court turned to the First Amendment question, using the ‘experience-and-logic’ test which requires an examination of whether experience and logic favor the public having access to the documents. This determination, however, may be rebutted by a showing of overriding government interest narrowly tailored to serve that interest. Here the court looked to another case, Douglas Oil, which explicitly states that grand jury proceedings are not subject to public access under this test since historically the proceedings have been closed to the public and access by the public would hinder rather than further a grand jury’s effectiveness. Therefore as a matter of law under both the common law and the First Amendment, no public right to access grand jury documents attaches, and the secrecy of such proceedings shall be preserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is maintained by the members of Nauman Smith’s Media and Right-to-Know Law practice group. The members of this practice group represent both: 1) media entities, individuals and corporations seeking access to public records, and 2) local municipalities seeking to comply with the law. THIS BLOG IS NOT MEANT TO BE USED AS LEGAL ADVICE. The purpose of this blog is to provide educational material for individuals interested in Pennsylvania’s open records law, commonly referred to as the “Right-to-Know Law” or “RTKL”. The opinions expressed by the individual members of the practice group are solely their own, and do not reflect the opinions of Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, or the practice group as a whole.

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