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Organizers plan to create de jure common-law grand jury for Allegheny County

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 6:41 p.m.

A group of Allegheny County residents is using language from a Supreme Court decision to try and establish a county-wide common-law grand jury.

A de jure common-law grand jury acts independently of prosecutors in its investigations. It has subpoena power and can bring what is called a presentment to a prosecutor, as referenced in the Fifth Amendment.

In 1946, however, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure were established, and they appear to do away with, or at least ignore, the common-law grand jury model, stating that “presentment is not included as an additional type of formal accusation, since presentments as a method of instituting prosecutions are obsolete, at least as concerns the Federal courts.”

John Darash of the National Liberty Alliance, which is helping to organize efforts to establish common-law grand juries, said the rejection of presentments in the federal rules undermine the foundation of the Constitution.

“The Constitution is a common-law document, as is the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta,” said Darash, who lives in New York. “What is our heritage as Americans? It's our inalienable rights, and that brings you right back to common law. It's what our founding fathers died for.”

Local organizer and Penn Hills resident Gary Vowinckel, along with Darash, cite the 1992 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Williams, specifically Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion, which argues that the grand jury is, in fact, a fourth arm of government independent of the three traditional branches:

“…the grand jury is mentioned in the Bill of Rights, but not in the body of the Constitution. It has not been textually assigned, therefore, to any of the branches described in the first three Articles,” Scalia wrote. “In fact the whole theory of its function is that it belongs to no branch of the institutional government, serving as a kind of buffer or referee between the Government and the people.”

Allegheny County organizers hold weekly meetings on Tuesday nights at the King's Family Restaurant in Harmar.

A Sept. 10 election to choose the county grand jury will take place at the Penn Hills library, located at 1037 Stotler Road, with a presentation at 7 p.m., followed by a show-of-hands vote. Those in attendance will then register for service on the common-law grand jury if they choose.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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