How do grand juries work? Their major role in criminal justice, and why prosecutors are using them to investigate efforts to overturn the 2020 election

Grand juries play a major role in the U.S. criminal justice system. And they’re very much in the news these days.

A grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, is looking into former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in that state. Among the latest witnesses to give testimony to the grand jury was Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Justice Department is in the middle of an investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and it is questioning witnesses before a grand jury as well. Most recently, two top aides to former Vice President Mike Pence were questioned in that probe.

A grand jury does not mean that the investigation will lead to any formal criminal charges, which are known as indictments. There was a grand jury that issued subpoenas during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, for example, but no one was charged with any crimes.

In order to understand grand juries and their work, I offer the following explanation of how federal and state grand juries are used in the U.S.

Legal basis: Federal and state

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the legal basis for grand juries. In federal criminal cases, federal grand juries are made up of 16 to 23 members. They decide whether to indict someone who is being investigated, and at least 12 grand jurors need to agree to issue an indictment.

In addition to considering whether individuals may have committed a crime, a grand jury can also be used by a prosecutor as an investigative tool to compel witnesses to testify or turn over documents. Reports indicate that Special Counsel Robert Mueller used a grand jury for the latter when he investigated whether there was collusion between former President Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election.

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