Texas SB 834: The Star Chamber Bill

One of the few great virtues of American criminal justice is that it is committed in the light of day. Courts are open to the public, and generally—not always; anonymous juries are becoming more common, which ironically means that the terrorists have won—the accused gets to know who is judging him. In any case, he gets some say, through the process of jury selection, in who judges him.

He doesn’t get any say in who makes the accusation against him, but in Texas, where there is a constitutional right to be tried on a grand-jury indictment, he can at least know who the grand jurors were.

Article 19.08 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure lists the qualifications for a grand juror:

1.  The person must be a citizen of the state, and of the county in which the person is to serve, and be qualified under the Constitution and laws to vote in said county, provided that the person’s failure to register to vote shall not be held to disqualify the person in this instance;

2.  The person must be of sound mind and good moral character;

3.  The person must be able to read and write;

4.  The person must not have been convicted of misdemeanor theft or a felony;

5.  The person must not be under indictment or other legal accusation for misdemeanor theft or a felony;

6.  The person must not be related within the third degree of consanguinity or second degree of affinity, as determined under Chapter 573, Government Code, to any person selected to serve or serving on the same grand jury;

7.  The person must not have served as grand juror or jury commissioner in the year before the date on which the term of court for which the person has been selected as grand juror begins;

8.  The person must not be a complainant in any matter to be heard by the grand jury during the term of court for which the person has been selected as a grand juror.

Only by knowing who the grand jurors are can the accused know that they have overcome these low hurdles. Fortunately, under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 19.42 grand jurors’ names are a matter of public record: 

Art. 19.42. PERSONAL INFORMATION ABOUT GRAND JURORS. 

(a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), information collected by the court, court personnel, or prosecuting attorney during the grand jury selection process about a person who serves as a grand juror, including the person’s home address, home telephone number, social security number, driver’s license number, and other personal information, is confidential and may not be disclosed by the court, court personnel, or prosecuting attorney.

A bloated senator from Wichita Falls, Craig Estes, would change that, amending Article 19.42 to make the names of grand jurors secret, revealable only on a showing of good cause. Estes’s bill has passed the Senate, and is up for hearing on Monday in the House.

Estes styles himself a “conservative”; I don’t think that word means what he thinks it means: there is nothing conservative about turning grand juries into star chambers. 

Aside from the effect on the accused’s ability to ensure that he has been indicted by a lawfully composed grand jury, there’s the little matter of the public’s right to know what its government is doing. If Estes has his way and grand jurors are allowed to go to work disguised with hoods (quick: in your mind, are those hoods black or white?) stories like this one will never come to light.

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