Why Robert Mueller’s Grand Jury Isn’t a Big Deal—Yet

Legal experts warn not to read too much into a report that special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury as part of his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The decision was likely made for practical reasons, such as making it easier to call witnesses to testify, and does not necessarily indicate that the former FBI chief is ready to issue indictments, experts say.

“When conducting an investigation, prosecutors commonly work with a grand jury,” said Melinda Haag, former U.S. Attorney in San Francisco. Because of its significant legal power and investigative reach, Haag says, impaneling of a grand journey can happen at almost any point during an investigation—not just near the end.

The use of grand juries, which serve as forums for testimony and evidence gathering before a potential trial, is not uncommon in federal cases. It’s a unique environment with special rules: because there are no defendants, legal counsel is not present, and the prosecutor has significant control over the proceedings. The process can lead to indictments if criminal evidence comes to light.

In part because it echoes the events of Watergate, Mueller’s decision to specially impanel a grand jury has been seen as revealing. That means that Mueller opted not to use a sitting grand jury to handle the case, or continue using the grand jury in Alexandria, Va., that had been used by federal prosecutors to investigate former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

But while the special formation of the jury is a highly visible and certainly important move in the ongoing investigation, it may be less dramatic than it initially appears.

“Given the nature of the things that Mueller is investigating, it would be odd for him not to use a grand jury in the District of Columbia,” said David Sklansky, a co-director at Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center, adding that it would be “weird” for Mueller to rely on a standing jury for the investigation.

There are a number of reasons for that. Under law, grand juries are held to a certain term length and sometimes called to multiple cases, so for a complicated and potentially lengthy investigation it makes sense for a prosecutor to convene a new jury that can devote its entire term and attention to a single case.

And a sitting jury would not have been screened for participation in a high-profile and high intensity case like this one. A dedicated grand jury will be an “administrative convenience,” in a case…

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