Bill Seeks To Raise Bar For Citizen-initiated Grand Juries

BISMARCK – A bill in the North Dakota House seeks to change the process for citizen-initiated grand juries, a statute few were aware was on the books until Dunn County residents petitioned to investigate the governor last year.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, the prime sponsor, said he didn’t want to eliminate the ability for citizens to convene a grand jury, but he wanted to raise the bar by increasing the number of signatures required.

“I take the power of the grand jury very seriously, and in looking at the current law, I believe that there is a possibility for abuse of the grand jury function based upon ideology, political agenda and many, many other aspects of what people’s viewpoints are,” Kasper said.

Kasper said his bill is not in response to the Dunn County petition, which sought a grand jury investigation of Gov. Jack Dalrymple related to campaign contributions he received from oil companies.

The bill would require a number of signatures equal to at least 25 percent of the county’s Census population, but not greater than 5,000 signatures. The current statute requires signatures from 10 percent of the number of voters in the most recent general election in the county.

Kasper said a woman who testified during a hearing last week said she knows of six petitions for grand jury investigations that are being circulated in the state.

His bill seeks to provide more citizen input so the process can’t be abused for a political agenda, Kasper said.

Grand Forks attorney David Thompson, who drafted the Dunn County petition that was later dismissed, said the Republican sponsors of the bill ought to be ashamed of themselves.

“This is obviously a cynical attempt to make it more difficult to have public officials investigated by citizen petitioned-for grand juries,” Thompson said.

One reason a judge dismissed the petition was because it didn’t have enough signatures from qualified voters. A second petition has been circulating and is expected to be filed next week.

The governor’s campaign called the petition that was filed shortly before November’s election “baseless” and politically motivated.

Aaron Birst, executive director for the North Dakota State’s Attorney’s Association, said state’s attorneys have been discussing an update to the grand jury chapter for about four years.

“It’s an extremely archaic statute,” Birst said. “Because it’s archaic, it makes it unusable in North Dakota.”

Birst submitted an amendment to the bill that updates the outdated language to make the grand jury process available to state’s attorneys to use for certain cases. His amendment did not address the citizen petitions.

“On very difficult cases, the grand jury would be a useful tool,” Birst said.

The bill has been assigned to a subcommittee.