Explainer: What’s a special grand jury and how does it work?

Kate Brumback
Associated Press

Atlanta – A prosecutor who’s investigating possible attempts by former President Donald Trump and others to interfere in the 2020 general election in Georgia on Thursday called for a special grand jury to help move the case along.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis began her investigation soon after taking office last January. The investigation includes a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump repeatedly and falsely asserted the Republican secretary of state could change the certified results of the presidential election. But Willis has made clear the investigation’s scope goes beyond that call.

More: Georgia DA asks for special grand jury in election probe

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, left, and former President Donald J. Trump.

Willis has said repeatedly that she isn’t in a hurry and her team would go where the investigation leads to determine whether any laws were broken.

In a letter sent Thursday, she asked county Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher to impanel a special grand jury for the case.

What is a special grand jury?

A special grand jury, or special purpose grand jury, is impaneled specifically to investigate any alleged violation of the laws of the state of Georgia.

How is it different from a regular grand jury?

A regular grand jury in Georgia is seated for a limited duration, one term of court – in Fulton County that’s two months. Grand jurors hear everything from felony shoplifting to murder cases and then decide whether to issue an indictment.

A special grand jury has no set term and focuses on a single topic. Unlike a regular grand jury, a special grand jury can subpoena the target of an investigation to appear before it, former Gwinnett County district attorney Danny Porter said. When the investigation is done, a special grand jury produces a report on its findings but can’t issue an indictment.

Why use a special grand jury?

Special grand juries are used for an expansive topic that takes longer than a single term of court to investigate and often has to do with public corruption, Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia executive director Pete Skandalakis said.

“It’s usually because it’s a very labor-intensive investigation that’s going to take a while to do,” he said, adding the investigation could involve calling witnesses, poring over documents and consulting experts.

“The election case would be an ideal case for a special purpose grand jury,” Porter said.

That’s because it’s likely a complex case with a lot of witnesses and potential logistical concerns that will take more time and focus than a regular grand jury is able to spend, he said.

What is the process?

An elected public official in a county or a municipality within a county can ask the chief judge of the superior court in that county to impanel a special grand jury. It’s generally requested by a district attorney.

After receiving the request, the chief judge submits it to the judges of the superior court for a vote. If a majority of the judges vote in favor, the special grand jury is seated. It is made up of between 16 and 23 people who are summoned from the county master jury list.

A special grand jury can compel evidence and subpoena witnesses for questioning. It can inspect records, documents and correspondence of state or local government officials and their offices can require any person or company to produce records, documents or correspondence related to the subject it is investigating.

When it is done, the special grand jury issues a final report of its findings and can recommend action. If the special grand jury recommends charges, it’s still up to the district attorney to decide whether to pursue an indictment. If the district attorney does want to seek an indictment, the case must be presented to a regular grand jury.

Are special grand juries common?

Skandalakis said there have probably only been a handful of special grand juries used in the entire state of Georgia in recent decades and it’s “very uncommon” for a district attorney to ask that one be impaneled.