Effort seeks support for ‘Common Law Grand Jury'

by W. Winston Skinner

Citizens from across Georgia will be gathering in Ringgold today in an effort to have “Common Law Grand Juries” in each county.

Cowetans were invited to participate in the meeting in the north Georgia town, but it is not known if any are planning to attend. The National Liberty Alliance of Hyde Park, N.Y. is sponsoring the meeting.

The NLA website lists county coordinators for three adjoining counties – Carroll, Fayette and Fulton.

According to a press release from John Darash of the NLA, “We the people will be holding an election for the reinstating of the Common Law Grand Jury” in each of Georgia’s 159 counties. The meeting is to be held at the Cracker Barrel, 50 Biscuit Way in Ringgold, at 11 a.m.

There will be a presentation first, followed by “a vote by showing of hands.” According to the press release, “participants will then be invited to register for the Common Law Grand Jury.”

Darash, who is often described as a spokesperson for the Common Law Grand Jury movement, could not be reached for comment.

The NLA, founded last year, is the result of political and judicial research that began in the spring of 2008. Initially called the New York Committeemen, the group changed its name as other residents of other states got involved.

Frank S. Alexander, Sam Nunn Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law and founding director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, said the Common Law Grand Jury is a concept that pre-dates the current system of American government.

“Somebody’s reaching back into early English history,” he said Tuesday morning. While such grand juries played “a functioning part of the development of law in the 17th century,” the Common Law Grand Jury “does not have any contemporary parallel” and has not since the Revolutionary War.

C. Peter Erlinder, who teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, and has been involved in international legal issues including service as lead defense counsel for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, talked about how Common Law Grand Juries functioned.

“The concept is sort of honored in the breach these days,” Erlinder said.

In colonial America, judges rode a circuit. There were no standing police or prosecutors and empaneled groups of 16-23 citizens decided who in their community should stand trial for criminal charges.

When the Articles of the Confederation – which essentially allowed for “13 almost independent states” – was superseded by the Constitution, which created a more powerful and centralized government, there was some resistance, Erlinder said. He said the Bill of Rights was enacted as “a limit on the government the founding fathers were imposing” – with the Fifth Amendment requiring people be tried for felonies only after a decision to do so by a grand jury.

In the mid-1700s, “citizens knew more about what was going on in their town than the judge did” and there were no professional prosecutors or police, Erlinder said. Police and prosecutors have become commonplace “as society got more complex,” he said.

Today, grand juries generally hear cases presented by prosecutors or police officers – or some combination. “They end up pretty much rubber stamping what the prosecutor presents them with,” Erlinder said.

Erlinder said there are powerful governmental and private interests today that could make a Common Law Grand Jury’s functioning difficult. Americans in the 1780s-1790s had “a completely different power system they were operating in.”

The NLA’s website does not fully address how Common Law Grand Juries would operate or how they would establish their legal force. The website does indicate the NLA has a goal to have an election in each county in the United States, that a single person in a county can call for an election and that there would eventually be four paid people per county to handle administration and juror orientation.

“Their intent that empowering the ordinary people to take a larger role in governance is an idea I support wholeheartedly,” Erlinder said.

Because of the complexity of society today, however, a Common Law Grand Jury may have a hard time functioning effectively. “I’m not sure the grand jury can do it on its own,” Erlinder said.



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