In a state where some appellate courts go out of their way to find trial errors harmless, the Amarillo appellate court deserves a nod for their recent opinion in Mason v. State. The case involved the Potter County District Attorney allowing law enforcement to question witnesses in front of the grand jury, a clear violation of the grand jury statutes. The appellate court’s opinion, to put it mildly, blasted the District Attorney for its blasé attitude towards following the law when indicting its citizens.
The opinion begins with this quote: “The greatest dangers in liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” – United States Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. In other words, beware of well-meaning but dense people. As I read this, a few people come to mind immediately.
Speaking of dense, here’s the State’s arguments of why what they did was A-OK:
(1) State: “We misunderstood what the law meant.” Appellate court: “Um, no. These statutes have been on the books since 1995 and 1989, respectively. And they were put there specifically to curb abuses in the grand jury process. Try again.”
(2) State: “Who cares really? If we break these laws, it will always be a technicial violation that appellate courts will deem harmless error.” Appellate court: “Wrong again – we’re finding it is harmful error. Because otherwise you’ll do this again and again with impunity.”
They actually said it a little more firmly than that: “We cannot countenance the State’s purposeful violation of the law . . . If the State is able to avoid a just result in this case, its prosecutors will be able to violate these statutes with impunity and visit an injustice upon every citizen who comes under scrutiny by a Potter County Grand Jury.”
Wow. Apparently some appellate judges take following the law pretty seriously. And think the State should too. Here’s my favorite quote: “This is particularly unfortunate because the State’s error, as well as this possible cost, could have been avoided if the State had simply obeyed the law. Something the State requires of its citizens on a daily basis.”
An appellate court upholding the law and demanding that prosecutors follow it as well? How refreshing. And subject to review by the Court of Criminal Appeals. This decision was about ensuring the integrity of our system – let’s hope they let it stand.