In finding a government watchdog group can’t get access to grand jury materials involving former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in the manslaughter case against the mayor’s nephew, the Illinois Supreme Court has declared a court order to seal grand jury documents will trump the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The court considered a case in which the Better Government Association, a watchdog organization, sued the city of Chicago and the Cook County Office of the Special Prosecutor over sealed grand jury documents. The documents related to the grand jury proceedings that led to Richard Vanecko, a nephew of then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, being tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter for punching a man who later died of his injuries.
Over the course of its six-month investigation, the grand jury reviewed testimony and interviews from nearly 150 witnesses and examined more than 300,000 pages of documents. All records of the grand jury’s activities, as well as all material requested and reviewed by the grand jury, were sealed by a protective order issued at the time the grand jury was impaneled.
In 2015, a year after Vanecko entered his guilty plea, the Better Government Association submitted a FOIA request to the city and the Office of the Special Prosecutor seeking the names of everyone interviewed by the special prosecutor, copies of communications between the office and the Daley family, copies of invoices and billing records, copies of all subpoenas received from the special prosecutor and of all documents provided to the special prosecutor.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley
The office of the special prosecutor denied the request, arguing that grand jury matters are exempt from FOIA because their secrecy is protected by state law. The association appealed, claiming only materials actually presented to the grand jury should be exempt.
The Illinois Supreme Court backed the appellate court’s determination. The opinion was authored by Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. The court’s other justices concurred, except Justice Robert R. Thomas, who did not participate in the court’s proceedings on the case.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court found the law protects virtually any matters related to the grand jury – including the identities of witnesses and jurors; the substance of testimony, questions or deliberations; and even the direction of the investigation. The secrecy is enshrined in state and federal law to protect the integrity of grand jury investigations. The association’s claim that FOIA supersedes such protections would “effectively nullify them,” the court wrote. It also disagreed with the association’s claim that releasing the requested documents is in the public interest.
“The United States Supreme Court has held that disclosure of grand jury materials is appropriate only in cases where the need for disclosure outweighs the public interest in secrecy,” the court wrote. “The BGA has not shown particularized need for disclosure of the requested material.”
The city also denied the association’s FOIA request, claiming that the requested documents were sealed by a court order and releasing them would place the city in contempt of court. A Cook County judge disagreed with this position, but an appellate court was convinced and overturned the judge’s decision.
The BGA argued withholding records for any reason other than the narrow list of exemptions outlined in FOIA constitutes “improper withholding.” The Supreme Court, however, ruled that court orders cannot be so lightly disregarded.
“When a circuit court with … jurisdiction issues an injunction, the injunction must be obeyed, however erroneous it may be, until it is modified or set aside by the court itself or reversed by a higher court,” Justice Neville wrote in the opinion.
“The city was required to obey the protective orders out of respect for the judicial process. Consequently … the protective orders took precedence over the disclosure requirements of FOIA.”