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The standard for determining when the traditional secrecy of the grand jury may be broken is as follows: Parties seeking grand jury transcripts under Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e) must show that the material they seek is needed to avoid a possible injustice in another judicial proceeding, that the need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy, and that their request is structured to cover only material so needed. Such a showing must be made even when the grand jury whose transcripts are sought has concluded its operations. In considering the effects of disclosure on grand jury proceedings, a court must consider not only the immediate effects upon a particular grand jury, but also the possible effect upon the functioning of future grand juries.
Several independent gasoline dealers filed antitrust actions in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona against several large oil companies. While discovery proceedings were under way, a federal grand jury empaneled in the Central District of California heard testimony from employees of several large oil companies, including the defendants in the civil antitrust actions, and returned an indictment against the oil companies for having conspired to fix gasoline prices, to which charges the companies pleaded nolo contendere. The gasoline dealers served discovery requests on the oil companies for the production of grand jury transcripts of testimony given by their employees in the above-mentioned grand jury proceedings, which transcripts had been given to the companies on their request by the United States District Court for the Central District of California. When the companies objected to discovery, the dealers filed a petition in the District Court in California asking that it, as guardian of the grand jury transcripts, order the transcripts released to the dealers under Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. After permitting the oil companies to participate in the proceedings, the District Court ordered that the transcripts be produced for inspection and copying, subject to specific restrictions on their use and further reproduction. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the disclosure order. The court found that continued grand jury secrecy was not a substantial factor as the grand jury proceeding had concluded three years before and the transcripts had already been released to petitioners. Although the court conceded that it knew little about the Arizona proceedings, it speculated that the transcripts would facilitate prosecution of the civil suits. Petitioners challenged the decision.
The Court held that the courts below did not err in selecting the standard governing disclosure of grand jury transcripts under Rule 6 (e). Though the veil of grand jury secrecy should not be lifted unnecessarily, it is recognized that in some situations justice may demand that discrete portions of transcripts be made available in subsequent proceedings. Here the California District Court made clear that it had to be demonstrated that a particularized need for disclosure outweighed the interest in continued grand jury secrecy, and the Court of Appeals correctly understood the standard applied in United States v. Procter & Gamble Co., 356 U.S. 677. However, the Court held that the Federal District Court in California, which did not have dependable knowledge of the status and needs of the parties in the civil suits in the Federal District Court in Arizona, abused its discretion in releasing directly to the dealers the grand jury transcripts requested, since the District Court, while appreciating that it was largely ignorant of the civil suits, made a judgment concerning the relative needs for secrecy and disclosure, and based its decision largely upon the unsupported assertions of counsel during oral argument before it, supplemented only by the criminal indictment returned by the grand jury, the civil complaints, and the oil companies' response to the discovery request, and since the court's comparison of the criminal indictment and the civil complaints did not indicate unambiguously what, if any, portions of the grand jury transcripts would be pertinent to the subject of the civil actions.