WICHITA - Religious conservatives have dusted off a largely forgotten 1887 state law that allows citizens to launch grand jury investigations, and they are using it to help turn Kansas into one of the nation's biggest abortion battlegrounds.
A grand jury that was impaneled Jan. 8 by way of a citizen petition drive is investigating Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita clinic operator abhorred by antiabortion activists because he is one of the nation's few physicians who perform late-term abortions. This is the second such citizen investigation of Tiller since 2006.
Phillip Jauregui, counsel for the antiabortion Life Legal Defense Foundation, said Kansans are invoking the law because prosecutors are soft on abortion.
"This is a right the people of Kansas have given themselves," he said.
But others say the law is a dangerous tool.
"This is a witch hunt, plain and simple," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, an abortion rights group. "It clearly demonstrates the inherent danger of empowering biased advocacy groups to impanel a grand jury."
Normally, prosecutors decide whether to convene a grand jury to investigate something and bring charges.
Under the Kansas law, enacted during the Gilded Age and the nation's great railroad boom to curb political corruption, the people can force an investigation if they collect signatures from a certain percentage of voters in a county. In small counties, that can be a few hundred signatures; in Wichita's Sedgwick County, about 4,000.
Five other states provide for citizen-petitioned grand juries: Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Nevada, according to a Tiller attorney.
One of the most publicized grand juries convened by citizen petition was formed in Oklahoma after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. The investigation was prompted by suspicions that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had help in the bombing. But the grand jury found no evidence of a wider conspiracy or a government coverup.
So far, no other state appears to have used the process to pursue a social and moral agenda as extensively as Kansas. Since 2005, citizen petitions have forced several grand juries in Kansas to investigate whether adult bookstores should be charged with obscenity. Most of the cases have not been resolved.