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County, DA spar over grand jury records

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett's county attorneys and district attorney squared off before the Supreme Court of Georgia Monday, arguing a case over whether grand jury records are open to the public.

According to a summary issued by the Supreme Court, county officials sought records regarding the testimony of Virginia Harris, the county's former internal audit division director who lost her job when the division was closed in 2006.

Harris sued the county in federal court, leading to the request, but District Attorney Danny Porter refused to hand over the documents. "It is my legal position that the public policy and statutory authority regarding the secrecy of the grand jury proceedings require that I refuse access to these records," Porter said, according to the summary.

In trial court, a judge ruled that only the materials presented in open court could be considered "court records" and subject to public access.

"There is no question that the grand jury in Georgia is a part of the state's system of government and operates as an arm of the superior courts," the county argued, according to the summary, adding that public policy "strongly favors openness."

Porter, though, argued that grand jury proceedings are secret and that only documents released to the public or in open court should be considered court records.

He said the grand jury typically decides which documents to release to the public and that to force the disclosure would be "bad public policy and would have a chilling effect on the grand jury process," the summary said.

In March of 2007, the grand jury urged the re-establishment of the internal audit division, which was replaced with the current performance analysis division. In its presentments, the grand jury said the closing of the department was legal but "not in the best interest of citizens."