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DOUGLAS OIL COMPANY CALIFORNIA ET AL. v. PETROL STOPS NORTHWEST ET AL.

decided: April 18, 1979.

DOUGLAS OIL COMPANY OF CALIFORNIA ET AL
v.
PETROL STOPS NORTHWEST ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 231. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Burger, C. J., and Stewart, J., joined, post, p. 233.

Author: Powell

[ 441 U.S. Page 213]

 MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents two intertwined questions concerning a civil litigant's right to obtain transcripts*fn1 of federal criminal grand jury proceedings. First, what justification for disclosure must a private party show in order to overcome the presumption of grand jury secrecy applicable to such transcripts? Second, what court should assess the strength of this showing -- the court where the civil action is pending, or the court that acts as custodian of the grand jury documents?

I

Respondent Petrol Stops Northwest is a gasoline retailer unaffiliated with any major oil company. In 1973, it operated 104 service stations located in Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, and several other States. On December 13, 1973, respondent filed an antitrust action in the District of Arizona against 12 large oil companies, including petitioners Douglas Oil Co. of California and Phillips Petroleum Co.*fn2 In its complaint, respondent alleged that on January 1, 1973, there had been a sharp reduction in the amount of gasoline offered for sale to it, and that this reduction had resulted from a conspiracy among the oil companies to restrain trade in gasoline, in violation of §§ 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act. 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U. S. C. §§ 1, 2. As a part of this conspiracy, respondent charged, petitioners and their co-defendants had fixed the prices of gasoline at the retail and wholesale distribution levels in California, Oregon, and Washington.*fn3

[ 441 U.S. Page 214]

     Respondents Gas-A-Tron of Arizona and Coinoco also independently sell gasoline through service stations they own or lease. Unlike respondent Petrol Stops Northwest, however, their operations are limited to the vicinity of Tucson, Ariz. On November 2, 1973, Gas-A-Tron and Coinoco filed an antitrust complaint in the District of Arizona naming as defendants nine large oil companies, including petitioner Phillips Petroleum Co.*fn4 Like respondent Petrol Stops Northwest, Gas-A-Tron and Coinoco alleged that as of January 1, 1973, their supply of gasoline had been sharply reduced, and attributed this reduction to a conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of the Sherman Act. The specific charges of illegal behavior asserted by the two retailers substantially paralleled those made by Petrol Stops Northwest in its complaint, and included an allegation that the defendants had fixed the price of gasoline at the wholesale and retail levels.*fn5

Although the issues and defendants in the two actions were substantially the same, the cases were assigned to two different judges in the District of Arizona. In February 1974, respondents served upon petitioners a set of interrogatories which included a request that petitioners state whether either of their companies at any time between January 1, 1968, and December 14, 1974 (sic), had had any communication with any of their competitors concerning the wholesale price of gasoline to be sold to unaffiliated retailers. Petitioners also were asked to produce any documents they had concerning

[ 441 U.S. Page 215]

     such communications. Petitioners responded that they were aware of no such communications, and therefore could produce no documents pertinent to the request.*fn6

In the meantime, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice had been investigating since 1972 the pricing behavior on the west coast of several major oil companies, including petitioners. See App. 26. As part of this investigation, employees of petitioners were called to testify before a grand jury empaneled in the Central District of California. The Government's investigation culminated on March 19, 1975, when the grand jury returned an indictment charging petitioners and four other oil companies with having conspired to fix the price of "rebrand gasoline" in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona.*fn7 The indictment alleged that the price-fixing conspiracy had begun in July 1970 and had continued at least until the end of 1971.

[ 441 U.S. Page 216]

     Although initially all six defendants charged in the criminal indictment pleaded not guilty, by December 1975, each had pleaded nolo contendere and was fined $50,000. Before changing their pleas, petitioners, acting pursuant to Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 16 (a)(1)(A), asked the District Court for the Central District of California to give them copies of the transcripts of testimony given by their employees before the grand jury. Their request was granted, and it appears that petitioners continue to possess copies of these transcripts.

In October 1976, respondents served upon petitioners requests under Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 34 for production of the grand jury transcripts in petitioners' possession. Petitioners objected to the requests for production, arguing that the transcripts were not relevant to the private antitrust actions and that they were not likely to lead to any admissible evidence. Respondents did not pursue their discovery requests by making a motion in the Arizona trial court under Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 37 to compel discovery. See n. 17, infra. Rather, they filed a petition in the District Court for the Central District of California asking that court, as guardian of the grand jury transcripts under Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 6 (e), to order them released to respondents. An attorney from the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice appeared and indicated that the Government had no objection to respondents' receiving the transcripts already made available to petitioners under Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 16 (a)(1)(A). He suggested to the court, however, that the real parties in interest were petitioners, and therefore that they should be given an opportunity to be heard. The California District Court accepted this suggestion, and petitioners participated in the proceedings as parties adverse to respondents.

After briefing and oral argument, the court ordered the Chief of the Antitrust Division's Los Angeles Office "to produce for [respondents'] inspection and copying all grand jury transcripts previously disclosed to Phillips Petroleum Company or Douglas Oil Company of California or their attorneys

[ 441 U.S. Page 217]

     relating to the indictment in United States v. Phillips, et al., Criminal Docket No. 75-377." App. 48-49. The production order was subject, however, to several protective conditions. The transcripts were to "be disclosed only to counsel for [respondents] in connection with the two civil actions" pending in Arizona. Furthermore, under the court's order the transcripts of grand jury testimony "may be used . . . solely for the purpose of impeaching that witness or refreshing the recollection of a witness, either in deposition or at trial" in the Arizona actions. Finally, the court forbade any further reproduction of the matter turned over to respondents, and ordered that the material be returned to the Antitrust Division "upon completion of the purposes authorized by this Order."

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the disclosure order. Petrol Stops Northwest v. United States, 571 F.2d 1127 (1978). The Court of Appeals noted that under United States v. Procter & Gamble Co., 356 U.S. 677 (1958), a party seeking access to grand jury transcripts must show a "particularized need." In evaluating the strength of the need shown in the present case, the Ninth Circuit considered two factors: the need for continued grand jury secrecy and respondents' need for the requested material. The court found the former need to be insubstantial, as the grand jury proceeding had concluded three years before and the transcripts already had been released to petitioners. As to respondents' claim, the court conceded that it knew little about the Arizona proceedings, but speculated that the transcripts would facilitate the prosecution of respondents' civil suits: Petitioners' answers to the 1974 interrogatories concerning price communications with competitors appeared to be at odds with their pleas of nolo contendere in the California criminal action.

II

Petitioners contend that the courts below erred in holding that, because the grand jury had dissolved and the requested material had been disclosed already to the defendants, respondents

[ 441 U.S. Page 218]

     had to show only a "slight need" for disclosure.*fn8 According to petitioners, this approach to disclosure under Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 6 (e) is contrary to prior decisions of this Court indicating that "a civil litigant must demonstrate a compelling necessity for specified grand jury materials before disclosure is proper." Brief for Petitioners 16.

We consistently have recognized that the proper functioning of our grand jury system depends upon the secrecy of grand jury proceedings. See, e. g., United States v. Procter & Gamble Co., supra.*fn9 In particular, we have noted several

[ 441 U.S. Page 219]

     distinct interests served by safeguarding the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings. First, if preindictment proceedings were made public, many prospective witnesses would be hesitant to come forward voluntarily, knowing that those against whom they testify would be aware of that testimony. Moreover, witnesses who appeared before the grand jury would be less likely to testify fully and frankly, as they would be open to retribution as well as to inducements. There also would be the risk that those about to be indicted would flee, or would try to influence individual grand jurors to vote against indictment. ...


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