The Society of American Archivists (SAA) supports the petition to open grand jury testimony related to the 1948 Alger Hiss indictments. The significant mitigating circumstances involved with the case justify opening customarily closed grand jury records. In reaching this decision, SAA recognizes that its code of ethics calls for archivists to uphold restrictions imposed by law to protect the privacy of citizens. However, SAA also recognizes that access to important records contributes to an accountable government. It is its hope that the court will recognize that in this case the public interest would be well served by lifting the restrictions that archivists might otherwise be forced to obey.
The justification for opening access is particularly strong when researchers engaged in a sustained effort to understand a complex historical issue are unable to gain insight because a critical body of records remains closed. In the case of the Alger Hiss grand jury records, SAA finds the need to provide scholars a full account of the testimony leading to the Hiss indictment to be well balanced and compelling. The continuing controversy over the indictment, the potential that political influence bore on the formulation of the indictment, and the competing claims of individuals who gained national prominence following the grand jury testimony combine to make the details of the case of clear national significance.
The Hiss grand jury is truly exceptional. SAA does not, in calling for the opening of these records, suggest that all grand jury records be subject to disclosure. However, we also believe that there is compelling public interest in allowing for the possibility that court records, including grand jury testimony, can be subject to eventual disclosure in cases of major national interest. The Hiss case presents an excellent illustration of appropriate circumstances for opening such records. Given the considerable time that has passed since the 1948 grand jury and the fact that not only was Hiss convicted of the crimes, but most of the principals in the case have long since deceased, there is no transcendent reason to maintain the secrecy of the records.
In an era when the conduct of grand juries has come into open public debate, SAA believes the Hiss case, beyond its substantial inherent merits, offers an ideal opportunity to affirm the principle that the potential disclosure of grand jury records ensures a more accountable grand jury system and thereby discourages government misconduct.
Thus at the core, SAA supports the opening of the Hiss grand jury records because this action is fully consistent with and supportive of the fundamental archival mission to ensure that access to important records contributes to an accountable government. This is a cornerstone to the United States Constitution and to democracy as much as it is a compelling tenet of archival work.
Approved by the Council of the Society of American Archivists, December 1998