Daily Report by Jonathan Ringel
September 20, 2019
The U.S. Department of Justice is battling historians and journalists over whether federal judges can unseal grand jury transcripts in old cases of historical significance.
The matter will be argued next month before all 12 judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in a case stemming from the 1946 lynching of two African American couples at the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia.
In February, an Eleventh Circuit panel split 2-1 in favor of a Maryland historian seeking a transcript of the grand jury that investigated the lynching, for which no one was ever charged.
The full Eleventh Circuit voted to rehear the case, asking lawyers to address whether the court should scrap its 1984 precedent allowing federal judges to unseal grand jury records in an “exceptional situation.”
Journalists, historians, archivists and others have asked to weigh in on the side of historian Anthony Pitch, who died in June and whose case has been continued by his wife.
“The Court’s inherent power to release grand jury records advances two core values—the need to inform the public about government conduct and the need to restore faith in the judiciary for communities whose confidence in the courts has been shattered” by lynchings and other abuses, read a brief submitted by Carlton Fields lawyers Richard Ovelmen and David Karp in Miami. They represent Gilbert King, who has written books about lynching, and the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee, Florida, nonprofit.