The California Supreme Court upheld Monday the power of state courts to censor or suppress portions of county grand jury reports, despite the objection of media organizations.
The 6-1 ruling approved a Fresno County Superior Court order sealing portions of a 1983-84 county grand jury report, which included testimony and evidentiary material in an investigation of a county computer service contract.Justice Marcus Kaufman wrote for the majority decision, saying that grand juries have no legal authority to disclose to the public testimony or evidence gathered in secret investigations. State court judges have the authority to seal portions of grand jury reports if they go beyond their legal authority.
Michael Woods, attorney for the Superior Court, said he was pleased with the decision. "The court ruled in a way that encourages thorough investigation but not at the expense of individual rights."
He said the Fresno case was an attempt to convert a secret proceeding into a public one after the fact. People who testified were not forewarned, he said.
County grand juries, considered public watch dogs on the operation of government, spend the bulk of their work investigating and reporting on the conduct of public officials, spending of public money and needs of local officials.
The report included a six-month investigation into alleged irregularities in the county's award of $1.37 million computer service contract to Systems and Computer Technology Corp.
Sealing the Fresno record was opposed by a group of media organizations in a suit including, McClatchy Newspapers, KMJ-Radio, KMPH-TV, KSEE-TV, KFIG-Radio and United Press International.
Capital Cities Communications Inc. also filed a separate petition in the .
"In view of the required secrecy of grand jury proceedings," Kaufman wrote, "(and) the absence of explicit statutory authority for the grand jury to disclose raw evidentiary materials to the public . . . we conclude the Superior Court acted properly."
Justice Stanley Mosk in a lone dissent took strong exception to the ruling, as he did a similar court decision in 1973.
"However well intentioned the Superior Court judge may have been, the inescapable conclusion is that in excising part of the grand jury report he was committing censorship."