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Having just watched the Netflix mini-series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich I was struck by the level of outrage which arose, in 2008, when the the US Attorney for Florida, remarkably, and inexplicably, as part of a plea deal, provided an immunity of prosecution, not only to Epstein but to numerous other named and unnamed people connected to him. And this was done without any consultation with the alleged victims, nor with their lawyers.

In such as this, in Britain, where there is widespread press and public concern over a matter of public administration, parliamentarians will usually call for a judge-led public inquiry, which looks into the matter,and has the power to subpoena witnesses and take evidence under oath - the object being to produce a report which uncovers the details of what happened, addresses the concerns which have been aroused, and to make recommendations.

Of course the immunity deal granted by Alex Acosta the Florida-based US Attorney was eventually struck down by a court - so it did mean that the prosecutions of Epstein and now Ghislaine Maxwell have been possible. But what that did not do, which a public-inquiry might have done, would have been to examine what processes led to the plea deal, whether corruption was involved, and how it was that Epstein was given such a light sentence, which was spent in relative comfort.

This Wikipedia entry will give you the basic information about public inquiries - and examples of recent ones, such as the Manchester Arena inquiry, which was set up to look into all the circumstances of the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena entertainment venue in 2017.

Are there such things as public inquiries in the United States? And if so, why is it that no such inquiry has been called for in this instance? Or has it?

If you do not hold public inquiries, how can the public become informed about the true facts and circumstances of of a matter where there is great public concern, rather than for rumour and conspiracy theory to arise?

This whole business of the sordid abuse of countless young women by a person of great wealth seems to me precisely the kind of thing that should, by itself, be the subject of an inquiry - let alone the more detailed matter as to how and in what circumstances an immunity from prosecution deal was struck. Many other disquieting issues arise out of it, such as the fact that it is said in the media that private investigators were employed to intimidate women who reported their abuse and were involved in litigation against Epstein.

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The "Public Inquiry", which is now part of public life in the UK, doesn't exist in the USA.

Congress has the power to investigate - this is part of its legislative function. It must investigate in order to determine the right form of future legislation. However when it does so, it forms "Congressional investigations" these are formed by a committee of Congress (House or Senate). These committees have subpoena Power and may hold witnesses in contempt if they refuse to attend or answer.

Congress has the power to investigate, and holds the power, by legislation, to delegate this power to an inquiry. There is no reason why they couldn't appoint judges to lead such an inquiry. They have the power to appropriate funds to do so. Congress could do this, in the same way that the UK Parliament has done it. That they haven't is not for lack of power, but a matter of political tradition.

Look at some recent, and less recent events that surely would be deserving of investigation:

  • Watergate - Investigations by a Senate committee.
  • Hurricane Katerina - Multiple investigations, a Congressional Committee, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCC), The National Science Foundation, and several investigations by members of the World Water Council.
  • The 9/11 attacks: Numerous political and military investigations on different levels, but notably a Presidential Commission, given subpoena power by Congress. This was quite similar to a public inquiry in the UK, but such commissions are used sparingly.
  • Champlain Tower collapse - Investigations ongoing by The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Other investigations and audits were done by the Town of Surfside, which employed structural engineer Allyn Kilsheimer to investigate (this seems similar in intent, if not scope, to a British public inquiry). There are also a number of lawsuits

An aspect of US public life that is quite different from the UK is the role of Grand Juries. These serve a different purpose from inquiries: they exist to determine if charges should be made. But in doing so, they must first investigate the background of a case, to establish if there is evidence that a crime has been committed. The US is also far more litigious than the UK. It is more common for investigations to occur as part of damages claims in court. Of course the scope of a Grand Jury or a civil court hearing a case for damages is quite different from that of a public inquiry.

A big cultural difference between the UK and US is the partisan nature of the Judiciary (and pretty nearly everyone in public life). The 9/11 commission was set up intentionally with 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans. By comparison the partisan alignments of Judges and most people in public life in the UK are considered private. The composition of public inquiries is intended to formed of non-partisans.

So, there is nothing quite like a British "Public Inquiry". Their place is taken by Congressional investigation, Presidential Commission, investigations by public and private groups such as NIST or the ASCC, grand juries, and legal action in civil court.

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  • This is clearly a well-informed and clear answer to the question. My only query now is whether there is likely to be any Congressional or other investigation into the Epstein affair?
    – WS2
    Jan 1 at 17:27
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    There are also Presidential Commissions, which are sometimes given subpoena power by act of Congress. For instance, the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission (led by the Chief Justice) both had subpoena power.
    – cpast
    Jan 1 at 19:03
  • As to whether a Judicial Public Inquiry might be set up to look into the crimes of a single deceased person, and related matters - that did happen in the case of Jimmy Saville. It is difficult to use that one as an example, however, because the first three Chairs resigned - for personal and other reasons, and the whole thing ran out of steam.
    – WS2
    Jan 1 at 20:39
  • One matter on which there would definitely be a judge-led public inquiry in Britain would arise if an incumbent Prime Minister claimed that a general election had been rigged, which was followed by an unruly mob storming through the Palace of Westminster. What kind of inquiry, if any, has taken place into what led up to the 6 January 2021 events in Washington?
    – WS2
    Jan 2 at 13:30
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    @WS2: There is a select committee for that.
    – Kevin
    Jan 2 at 20:47
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Are there such things as public inquiries in the United States? If you do not hold public inquiries, how can the public become informed about the true facts and circumstances of of a matter where there is great public concern, rather than for rumour and conspiracy theory to arise?

Ad hoc inquiries of significant events and issues do happen in the United States, although the naming of such investigations is not standardized. There are myriad institutions that conduct them and there is not a settled practice for doing so.

This said, the U.S. is probably more subject to rumor and conspiracy theories than the U.K., and distrust of historically authoritative sources of information by government officials, official inquiries, main stream media sources, and academia, is at an all time low in the U.S. for about 30-40% of Americans (mostly on the political right). Few people would claim that the U.S. political system is particularly good at public inquiries and at providing public information that quells rumors and conspiracy theories.

This diversity of inquiry methods is, in part, because the U.S. federal system of government is much more complicated with many more independent parts than the U.K. government, and in part, this is a function of the lack of a fused legislative and executive in a parliamentary system that leads to greater distrust and less uniformity.

Most legislatures have investigations by committees in their subject matter areas, and sometimes ad hoc committees for novel or particular events (such as the current Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capital in the U.S. House).

There is an agency in the federal government called the GAO (originally the "General Accounting Office" and now the "General Accountability Office") that conducts such inquiries as do units in the Justice Department and an Investigator-General's office in each cabinet level department in the federal government. Most states have a "state auditor" whose job is to conduct such inquires which is shared with the state attorney general and often a state bureau of investigation. Some cities, such as the City and County of Denver, Colorado also have their own auditor's office which conducts inquires as needed.

The federal government, and many state governments, have provisions for the appointment of a "Special Counsel" to investigate something.

Many media companies (e.g. newspapers and TV news outlets) conduct investigations, individually or as part of a joint effort of multiple media companies. Academic institutions and professional organizations (e.g. the American Bar Association) or teams of investigators at multiple academic institutions and professional organizations sometimes conduct investigations, inquiries and conferences about matters of public concern. Advocacy organizations (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center) also sometimes conduct such investigations.

Some matters generate multiple inquiries. For example, in the wake of a recent controversy alleging corrupt conduct in Colorado's judicial branch, the judiciary commissioned two independent investigative firms, as did the FBI, the state auditor’s office, the Attorney Regulation Counsel that disciplines lawyers and the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline.

Sometimes, a sitting or retired ex-judge is appointed by a court as a special master, to apprise the court of evidence that its either cumbersome for it to review, or that it shouldn't personally see.

Historically, grand juries have been convened for this kind of broad ranging investigation, although this practice has largely fallen into dessitude. But, county-level civil grand juries in California, for example, still retain this function.

Grand juries are also the most common way that law enforcement officer involved shootings are investigated.

Inquiries into transportation accidents other than traffic accidents involving cars and trucks are generally conducted in the United States by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

When investigations are done by a body other than a committee of a legislature, at the behest of the executive branch, the legislative branch, or both, this is often called an investigative commission. Some examples would include:

  1. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (9/11 Commission) (2002)

  2. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (2009)

  3. Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (“Moynihan Commission”) (1994)

  4. National Commission on Terrorism (1998)

  5. National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community (2010)

  6. National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office (2000)

  7. The Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States (see also here).

The members are typically distinguished "elder statesmen", current or former judges, and leading academics in a relevant field.

The U.S. military has a similar institution called a Board of Inquiry, that is usually staffed with senior, but not top level, military officers, rather than judges.

Likewise, sometimes an inquiry is conducted by a coroner's office, which sometimes convenes a coroner's jury, to assist it in this task, although this practice too is rare (although California has utilized them as recently as 2018).

The Center for Disease Control conducted an official inquiry with a partially declassified report regarding the origins of the COVID-19 virus, as did the World Health Organization of the United Nations (separately) with a separate body called the Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) formed for that purpose.

Sometimes these commissions are created to propose solutions when the people proposing the commissions actually want solutions or greater understanding, and sometimes these commissions are created as a consolation prize to defer action on a problem that the people with the power to act are not willing to take yet to address serious complaints or concerns raised by legislators or activists pressing for action.

A variety of inquiries into the accuracy of the 2020 election results were conducted by election boards, by political party or activist supported "audits" (see, e.g. Arizona and Pennsylvania), by independent media outlets of various types, and by courts in connection with litigation of these results.

Sometimes private lawsuits by brought by attorneys for victims of a particular incident that give rise to public trials provide the public with insight into an event.

Sometimes international human rights organizations and U.N. Agencies conduct investigations and inquiries of these kinds (e.g. Inter-American Human Rights Organization conducted an inquiry into the events surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales in which local police in Colorado despite receiving clear warnings of imminent tragedy declined to enforce a protective order causing the children protected by that order to be killed by their father).

And if so, why is it that no such inquiry has been called for in this instance? Or has it?

In the Epstein case involving leniency in connection with criminal charges in Florida, in early August of 2019, "Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a state criminal investigation on Tuesday into the plea agreement that allowed Jeffrey Epstein to skirt federal prosecution for soliciting prostitution from underage girls in 2007." This state probe released a report in May of 2021 exonerating the officials involved.

The U.S. Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility also conducted a separate inquiry into this matter at the request of a U.S. Senator. The same link note that lawyers for the victims in that case have investigated and pursued the matter, and that the Miami Herald newspaper conducted an investigation which led to the calls for the Florida and U.S. Justice Department inquiries.

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  • That is a comprehensive and very thoughtful answer. Thank you for the trouble you have taken. Your paragraph beginning This said, the U.S. is probably more subject to rumor and conspiracy theories than the U.K... is interesting. My impression, as a general rule, is that in the US there is less confidence in central institutions than is the case in most European countries - even federally governed ones like Germany. Undoubtedly that has both upsides and downsides.
    – WS2
    Jan 5 at 17:55
  • Having said that, interestingly Britain, often seen as a quintessentially unitary country, is the only major western one which does not have a national police force of any kind - while the US does have the FBI.
    – WS2
    Jan 5 at 17:59
  • @YSZ England's police force is vastly more centralized than that of the U.S., even though it doesn't extend to Scotland and Norther Ireland as I understand the matter, and has been for more than a century. Probably 90%-95% of U.S. police report to local governments. The comparable percentage in England would be tiny.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 5 at 19:35
  • The UK has nothing comparable to the FBI. The only police force in Britain whose chief reports directly to the government is the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard). The head of the Met reports to the Home Secretary - a member of the Cabinet. All other police forces report to locally-elected Police & Crime Commissioners.
    – WS2
    Jan 5 at 23:25
  • @WS2 what about the NCA?
    – CDJB
    Jan 7 at 16:55

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