Grand Juries

November 7, 1973

Report Outline
Wide Use of Grand Juries in 1970s
Development from Henry II to Nixon
Proposals for Grand Jury Reform
Special Focus

Wide Use of Grand Juries in 1970s

Grand Jury Role in Watergate and Agnew cases

The grand jury has been condemned as an arbitrary and capricious Star Chamber and lauded as a people's panel which seeks out truth while protecting ordinary citizens from overzealous prosecutors. Ignored and unnoticed for much of American history—“a hidden corner of American law”—the system has come increasingly under scrutiny in recent years. In the early 1970s, grand juries were used extensively to investigate Black Panthers, Catholic leftists and antiwar militants. This year, they have heard evidence against such prominent former members of the Nixon administration as Spiro T. Agnew, John N. Mitchell, Maurice Stans, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. Mitchell, Stans and Ehrlichman have been indicted and face trial while Agnew pleaded no contest to income tax evasion and resigned as Vice President before indictments were returned.

The controversy over possession of tape recordings made in President Nixon's Oval Office pitted him against a federal grand jury and brought on a constitutional crisis. It was on behalf of the grand jury in Washington, B.C., that Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox sought nine of the presidential tapes for the Watergate investigation, and it was on the grand jury's behalf that U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica ruled that they must be released to him for review. The President's appeal of Sirica's order and temporary defiance of it—before capitulation—set in motion a yet-unresolved crisis in government and a threat of presidential impeachment in Congress.

Watergate-related investigations had meanwhile been conducted by a second grand jury in Washington, and by grand juries in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Orlando, Fla. Vice President Agnew, the administration's chief law-and-order spokesman, became the unhappy subject of a federal grand jury investigation in Baltimore that led to his resignation from office, although the investigation did not concern Watergate developments. It dealt with possible violations of bribery, conspiracy, extortion and tax laws by Agnew when he was Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and Vice President.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Jury System
Nov. 10, 1995  The Jury System
Nov. 07, 1973  Grand Juries
Sep. 13, 1972  American Jury System: Reexamination and Change
Feb. 09, 1966  Fair Trial by Jury
Dec. 14, 1955  Jury System
Oct. 23, 1929  Trial by Jury: Defects and Proposed Remedies
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
Powers and History of the Presidency