Oklahoma is among at least six states that allow citizens to petition courts to empanel a grand jury that may investigate allegations of crimes. In Oklahoma, the citizens right is enshrined in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights. Like most rights, the right to petition for a grand jury in Oklahoma comes with some obligations.
The Oct. 15, 2013 dismissal of a Rogers County citizens’ petition bearing 6,994 signatures seeking investigation of District Attorney Janice Steidley highlights reasons a grand jury petition may fail. Two days later, subjects of a Tulsa County grand jury petition cited the Rogers County case in a motion to have a grand jury petition dismissed. The Tulsa motion to dismiss failed on arguments similar to those that convinced another judge to dismiss the Rogers County petition.
A big difference between the cases is that, in the Rogers County case, nobody stood up to defend the petition against challenges that said it was not an authorized petition. “It is undisputed” that signature forms were not valid, an attorney argued against the Rogers County petition.
Because nobody stood up to dispute arguments, the motion to dismiss was in fact not disputed, but the argument was not indisputable. Attorneys in the Tulsa County petition successfully disputed similar arguments.
Tulsa County petitioners were represented by an attorney when the subjects of their grand jury petition challenged the forms on which signatures were gathered. The Tulsa County petitioners’ attorney rebutted arguments seeking dismissal of their petition.
The judge denied a motion to dismiss the Tulsa County petition because the motion was not timely and because the petition itself was not deficient. Other than timeliness, there was little — if any – difference in the format of the petitions.
The best way for petitioners to be certain a grand jury petition meets legal requirements is to retain an Oklahoma attorney who will review the petition and defend it against courtroom challenges.
Procedure for Filing an Oklahoma Grand Jury Petition
Since 1989, Oklahoma residents who seek to empanel a grand jury under authority of the state’s constitution must submit a copy of the petition to the clerk of courts prior to seeking signatures. The petition must:
1. state the subject matter of the proposed grand jury,
2. specifically identify areas into which the Grand Jury will inquire and
3. include sufficient general allegations to warrant a finding that the inquiry may lead to information that, if true, would warrant an indictment or an action for removal of a public official.
Within four business days after a proposed grand jury petition is filed, the presiding district judge must make an order determining whether the petition meets legal requirements. If the petition doesn’t pass muster, petitioners have two days to submit an amended petition. They may appeal an order that finds their amended petition inadequate.
After a judge approves a petition, the order can not be appealed. Subjects of the Rogers County petition didn’t appeal the order approving that petition. Instead they convinced a court to dismiss the petition for not having gathered enough signatures – even after petitioners submitted 6,994 signatures approved by the local board of elections.
Do Signature Pages Require Prior Court Approval?
Rogers County officials argued the signatures seeking an investigation of their activities were not attached to the seven-page petition the court had approved. Obviously, no multiple-page court filing seeking approval of a petition can include every page of the court filing on each signature page. And blank signature pages with no reference to a multi-page court filing could easily be challenged.
The 2013 Tulsa County petition and a prior 2010 Tulsa County petition had each included summary statements on each signature page. In neither case had petitioners included examples of signature page summaries in their more expansive initial filings seeking court approval of their petition. Courts have repeatedly approved signatures on forms similar to the one rejected in the Rogers County petition.
The district judge’s decision dismissing the Rogers County grand jury petition was not binding on other courts and did not set precedent. It does nonetheless raise an important concern about future grand jury petitions in Oklahoma. Petitioners in the future might avoid similar challenges by including in an initial court filing an example of any summary language to be printed on signature pages.
Officials who challenged the Rogers County petition also raised questions about instructions that were included in folders of blank signature forms. The challenge suggests a safe approach might be to seek prior court approval of all documents petition sponsors plan distribute to individual petitioners.
Grand Jury Petition Approval Process
A valid petition must contain 16 percent as many signatures of registered county voters as the number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election, or at least 500 which ever is greater. No more than 5,000 signatures are required in any case, no matter the number of voters. Petitioners have 45 days to gather an adequate number of signatures.
Once signatures are submitted to the court clerk, copies are sent the next business day to the local election board. The election board then has seven days to validate the number of qualified voters who signed the petition. After signatures are validated, the court is required to empanel a grand jury within 30 days.
The current Oklahoma grand jury petition statute, adopted in 1989, does not specifically provide for challenges to the validity of signatures. Subjects of the Rogers County petition found a way argue against thousands of signatures associated with the petition there.
Officials who were subject of the Rogers County petition nonetheless persuaded a court to entertain their arguments about whether signature pages met statutory requirements. And the state Supreme Court reassigned the case to another judge after petitioners persuaded the judge who originally approved the petition to seal signatures without allowing subjects of the petition a chance to reply to the motion.
Subjects of the Rogers County petition who entered a challenge after a court had authorized a petition, the petition’s subjects had representation, and petitioners did not. In Tulsa County, both sides had representation and challenges leveled against that petition failed. Again, the difference points to a need for qualified legal counsel to defend a grand jury petition against challenges every step of the way.
Libelous Grand Jury Petitions
The Oklahoma Constitution empowers the legislature to enact laws to “prevent corruption in making, filing, circulating, and submitting” of grand jury petitions. To that end, the legislature has set out some specific libel provisions with regard to grand jury petitions.
A lifetime of living in a country that celebrates an unabridged right to petition the government for redress of grievances might imply a broad license to level charges against officials. But in the Rogers County grand jury petition, a subjects of the petition stuck back with a libel suit petitioners for the contents of their grand jury petition. The libel suit challenged the contents of court-approved petition and the summary statements on signature pages the DA called an “Unauthorized Petition.”
While the libel case at the time of this writing was only recently filed and remains pending, it nonetheless serves as a cautionary note to anyone who would level charges against someone in a grand jury petition.
Truth is a defense to libel, but when a petition includes multiple counts, a slight error in even one count on a grand jury petition can give rise to a counter-action by way of a libel suit. The libel suit may eventually be tossed out or settled, but an ongoing libel suit can give a plaintiff grounds to demand access to correspondence, subpoena witnesses for sworn deposition, and to potentially put confidential or embarrassing facts in court filings.
The take-home is that a person who plans to circulate a grand jury petition needs to anticipate and prepare for potential counter-strikes. Be careful not to file a petition for a malicious or illicit purpose. Be cautious even in private correspondences and especially in communication with media or the public not to go beyond charges you honestly believe can be proven. Don’t attack the individual targets of a petition – instead express an interest in the rule of law and, where public officials are concerned, an interest in fair and honest governance.
Never Pay Anyone to Sign a Grand Jury Petition
Oklahoma statutes make it a misdemeanor to pay a person to sign a petition or to remove their name from a petition. “Gratuities” and “prizes” offered as enticements are also illegal. And it is a misdemeanor to knowingly make false statements to get a person to sign a grand jury petition in Oklahoma.
Grand jury petitions recently circulated in Oklahoma have included statements that it is a felony for an unqualified person to sign the petition. The stern warnings have not dissuaded petitioners from gathering large numbers of signatures.
Free Consultation: Tulsa Attorney
Allegations among Rogers County officials raise several concerns about how those matters may affect criminal prosecutions there. Wirth Law Office is available to freely and confidentially consult with anyone who has a case pending there in Claremore. Ok. who may be affected by the allegations.
Wirth Law Office also provides advice, consultation and representation on other legal matters. We don’t’ suggest a grand jury petition is always the best way to deal with suspicions of public corruption, but if you do suspect corruption, we know you need effective representation.
Wirth Law Office’s Oklahoma attorneys are available to talk with you about Oklahoma grand jury petitions or other matters than may involve allegations of public corruption. For a free consultation, call the Wirth Law Office at (918) 879-1681 or toll free at (888) Wirth-Law. You may also send us your written questions using the form at the top left of this page.