ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s highest court Tuesday overturned a lower court’s order that would have forced the state prosecutor to reveal details of his probe of Linda Tripp to an independent legal group.
The Maryland Court of Appeals called the Public Information Act request by Judicial Watch Inc. an “end run” around the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, which it said must be protected.
Officials in the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office welcomed the ruling.
“The fact that groups such as Judicial Watch could inundate any prosecutor’s office with (Public Information Act) requests, the prosecutor would have to deploy half its staff to deal with the PIA requests,” said Steven Halpert, the prosecutor’s law clerk. “That’s not what the PIA was intended for.”
But Judicial Watch founder Larry Klayman blasted the decision, which he said would mean “the government does not have to answer to the people for political prosecutions and is above the law.”
The case stems from the July 1998 announcement by State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli that he would convene a grand jury to investigate charges of wiretapping against Tripp. Her secretly tape-recorded telephone conversations with former White House aide Monica Lewinsky sparked the impeachment of President Clinton.
Tripp has since been indicted by the state prosecutor on wire-tapping charges.
A day after Montanarelli announced his investigation, Judicial Watch filed a Public Information Act request for all documents the prosecutor had on Tripp, Lewinsky, the White House, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and others.
Montanarelli rejected the request, saying Judicial Watch was not a “person of interest” in the case and that the requested records were part of an ongoing investigation, which is not subject to the public records law.
Judicial Watch appealed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, which ordered the state to submit to the court and to Judicial Watch an index that “word for word, paper for paper” identified all documents that could fall under the public information request. It later ordered the prosecutor’s office to state “the subject matter of the testimony” presented to the grand jury.
The Court of Special Appeals blocked that order and the Court of Appeals reversed it Tuesday. In the opinion, written by Chief Judge Robert Bell, the appeals court said that using the Public Information Act to open grand jury proceedings would “undermine the process.”
The opinion also said that a court can order disclosure of grand jury matters, but only in cases of “particularized need” and only when the request is filed in the circuit court where the grand jury convened. The Tripp grand jury met in Howard County, but Judicial Watch filed its disclosure request in Baltimore County, where Montanarelli’s office is located.
The court also said Judicial Watch is not “a person of interest” under the Public Information Act.
Klayman said he was only seeking documents that would contribute to his group’s investigation of the so-called Filegate case, in which the first lady allegedly abused FBI personnel files. He said Tuesday’s decision unfairly shields Montanarelli and his case against Tripp.
“Judicial Watch was seeking documents concerning communications from the White House to the Maryland State Prosecutor urging the commencement of a political prosecution of Mrs. Tripp,” Klayman said. “That the court failed to address this issue, and referred only to grand jury documents shows that they not only wanted to sidestep the issue, but also protect Mr. Montanarelli.”
He noted that the fact that he filed his appeal in Baltimore County was never an issue in the lower court decision.
But the appeals court gave little hope that Klayman could win, should his appeal be referred back to Howard County. It said that “none of the showings required for disclosure of grand jury files and records have been made or even attempted to be made” in the Tripp case.
Klayman vowed to fight on.
“In its zeal to protect Mr. Montanarelli, the court has created precedent that the government does not have to answer to the people for political prosecutions and is above the law,” he said. “This is a very political decision in a very Democratic state, and for this reason Judicial Watch will take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before we’re through.”