Demonstrators gather outside of the Kenai Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Demonstrators gather outside of the Kenai Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

State officials clarify grand jury role

They weighed in as the assembly’s Legislative Committee considered a resolution on grand juries

State officials on Tuesday told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly that Alaskans do not have the right to directly present information they want to see investigated to grand jurors.

John Skidmore, the deputy attorney general for the Criminal Division of the Alaska Department of Law, and Nancy Meade, general counsel for the Alaska Court System, weighed in during a meeting of the assembly’s Legislative Committee on a resolution that was being considered by the body, and which called for the Alaska Legislature to hold hearings about issues related to Alaska grand juries.

Skidmore said grand juries in Alaska are tasked with determining whether or not there is enough evidence to charge someone with a felony crime, while investigative grand juries look into and make recommendations on issues concerning public welfare or safety. Investigative grand juries, he said, do not investigate crimes.

Section 8 of Article 1 of the Alaska Constitution addresses grand juries.

“The power of grand juries to investigate and make recommendations concerning the public welfare or safety shall never be suspended,” the Alaska Constitution says.

Concerns about the role of Alaska’s grand juries have been spearheaded by central peninsula resident David Haeg, who has presented information on the subject to city councils, to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and to other groups for years.

What began as an attempt by Haeg to spur a grand jury to investigate alleged corruption in Alaska’s judicial system has, in recent months, pivoted to opposition to new rules handed down by the Alaska Supreme Court. Those rules say, among other things, that a citizen not serving as a grand juror must direct concerns to the attorney general for consideration.

Haeg has said the right of private citizens to present evidence directly to grand juries comes from the original version of the Alaska Grand Jury Handbook. A copy of that handbook, published by the U.S. Department of Justice through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, says the agency received the document on Oct. 25, 1962.

“Charges of crime may be brought to your attention in several ways: (1) by the Court, (2) by the district attorney, (3) from your own personal knowledge, or from matters properly brought to your personal attention, (4) by private citizens heard by the Grand Jury in formal session, with the Grand Jury’s consent,” that handbook directs grand jurors.

The version of the grand juror handbook currently linked on the Alaska Department of Law’s website, which is dated July 2022, says prosecutors sometimes receive letters from private citizens addressed to the grand jury, asking that an investigation be conducted.

“In these situations, the prosecutor will probably conduct a preliminary investigation and make a recommendation to the grand jury about whether to take action,” the handbook says. “It will be up to the grand jury to decide whether to investigate the matter requested in the letter.”

The Alaska Court System last week published a “frequently asked questions” about Alaska’s grand jury investigation process. Meade said Tuesday that the rule changes were prompted by three separate instances of people who brought questions to different Alaska courthouses in 2022 about grand juries.

“The (Alaska) Supreme Court took note of the fact that around the state in 2022, there were three different citizens who wanted an investigation of grand juries as allowed by the Constitution, but there were not procedures in place for where they would go and how that investigative grand jury would be conducted,” Meade said.

Meade said the new rules implemented put a procedure in place for members of the public where there wasn’t one before. Private citizens, she said, can bring issues to either the district attorney or the Alaska Department of Law. The Department of Law then decides whether or not it is a matter of public welfare or safety and whether to bring it to a grand jury for investigation.

“If a citizen could just walk into a courthouse and approach a grand jury setting and say, ‘I want you guys to look into this,’ I can’t imagine how that would work,” Meade said.

Meade said the Alaska Constitution gives grand juries the right to investigate, but does not give private residents the right to approach members of a grand jury. Neither is that right articulated in state statute, she said.

“Even though a grand jury has the constitutional authority to investigate, that does not mean that an individual citizen has a right to present anything directly to the grand jury,” Meade said. “This has never been the case.”

In the event that the district attorney or Department of Law is the subject of the concern, a neutral prosecutor is to be appointed.

Assembly member Lane Chesley on Tuesday urged Skidmore and Meade to understand how seriously community members take the issue of grand juries and suggested that the officials engage with those community members.

“I just wanted to say, after listening to hours and hours and hours and hours of public testimony on this issue … that you have a real crisis of confidence in your court system here,” Chesley said. “I just encourage you to take that seriously. If I can do anything on behalf of all the people who come here to testify, it’s to share with you how serious it is, how important they take it, and how they’re really, really struggling to have their voice heard.”

The resolution passed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday requests that the Alaska Legislature hold hearings about Alaska’s grand juries and mechanisms to protect the independence of investigating grand juries. Additionally, the resolution calls for the Legislature to address public concerns about those rules.

“If there exist allegations that bias or systemic corruption have led to improperly restricting substantive rights without due process or public notice, then it is incumbent upon the Legislature to gather further information or evidence through the public hearing process,” the resolution passed Tuesday says.

Tuesday’s resolution was the second time the body has passed legislation regarding the scope of Alaska grand jury investigations. Resolutions do not change borough code. Assembly members voted 5-3 in favor of the resolution, with assembly members Tyson Cox, Brent Johnson and Mike Tupper voting in opposition.

A group of about 10 people rallied at the Kenai Courthouse on Wednesday, including Haeg, to protest the new Supreme Court rules and to show support for Alaska grand jury investigative power.

“We need to have the public aware that our grand juries are totally independent and a body that can investigate any allegations of corruption in government and that they’re free to do that,” Haeg said Wednesday.

At least three people on Wednesday, including Haeg, brought documents to the Kenai Courthouse that they wished to present directly to a grand jury. Demonstrators were directed by courthouse staff to present information to the district attorney’s office. Demonstrators later said the district attorney was not available.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.us.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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