For 170 years, each California county has assembled a panel of citizens to sit on the grand jury. And since 1872, when the law detailing the role of grand juries was set down in the California Penal Code, those grand juries have the power to investigate the county’s own government.
Other than Nevada, no other state employs its grand jury system as a government watchdog, on which ordinary citizens can hold elected officials, public agencies, and almost any person or entity that receives public funds, to account.
California, like 47 other states, also uses grand juries to deliver criminal indictments, though only 23 states, not including California, require indictments for serious felonies. But the civil grand jury in each county does not indict anyone. It investigates, and in its most important function, issues reports of its findings.
Though public officials and agencies are required to compose official responses to civil grand jury reports, the grand jury has no other authority. The light that it shines on the inner workings of government is the civil grand jury’s only source of power.
The grand jury’s functions are spelled out in the Penal Code starting at Section 888, and run through Section 945. The grand jury’s civil role is spelled out in Section 925, which states that “the grand jury shall investigate and report on the operations, accounts, and records of the officers, departments, or functions of the county including those operations, accounts, and records of any special legislative district or other district in the county created pursuant to state law for which the officers of the county are serving in their ex officio capacity as officers of the districts.”
The citizen watchdog role seems like it should be overwhelmingly popular. There are few other opportunities for citizens who are not elected officials or public employees to take such a direct role in monitoring and exposing government flaws, incompetence and corruption — or just recommending ways to improve the regular operations of local agencies. But not everyone has been on board.
“Facts and evidence are researched in depth before we give our collective opinion, advice and recommendation as written reports. We do not expect that everyone will agree with our findings and recommendations,” wrote former El Dorado County grand jury foreperson Neil P. Cunningham, in an op-ed for the Village Life newspaper in El Dorado Hills. “We do expect thoughtful and reasoned responses that are in the best interest of the citizens of El Dorado County. In recent years, local and state leaders have attacked a grand jury’s motives and even its right to existence rather than provide meaningful responses.”
The right of the grand jury to issue reports at all has come under legal scrutiny. A 1971 case, Monroe v. Garrett, saw a state court of appeal uphold that right, declaring that “in our system of government a grand jury is the only agency free from possible political or official bias that has an opportunity to see the operation of the government on any broad basis. It performs a valuable public purpose in presenting its conclusions drawn from that overview.”
While some California counties empanel their civil and criminal grand juries separately, El Dorado County combines the two functions in one grand jury. Though the grand jury is part of the Superior Court system, and is supervised by a judge, that judge has no influence over what areas of county government and operations the grand jurors choose to investigate. The grand jury operates independently.
“It is a check against governmental authority,” the Superior Court website states. “It is not a branch of the County, nor is it answerable to the District Attorney.”
Grand jurors can decide among themselves what they want to investigate, or they can respond to citizen complaints—that is, to whistleblowers. The sensitive nature of those complaints is one reason why grand jury proceedings are kept secret. Jurors are not allowed to discuss their investigations with anyone but each other, not even their spouses.
That secrecy extends even to the people sending in the complaints. They receive a letter back from the grand jury acknowledging that the complaint has been received. But that’s it. Unless the person making the complaint is later interviewed as part of an investigation, they never hear from the grand jury again.
In El Dorado County, citizens can file complaints—or “action requests”—online at this link. But complaints cannot be directed at individuals who are not public officials. The grand jury investigates only government functions. For example, as the court’s site notes, the grand jury cannot investigate a neighbor for allowing a dog to bark incessantly. But the jury can investigate the Animal Control Department’s procedures for handling noisy animals.
The grand jury also has no authority to investigate the courts themselves, or problems in other counties, or branches of the federal or state governments. But county and city governments, and special districts, are all fair game. The financial workings of school districts can also be investigated by the civil grand jury, but not issues related to the school’s curriculum or educational policies.
California grand juries are required, under Penal Code Section 919, to investigate county jail and prison facilities and operations, and “into the willful or corrupt misconduct in office of public officers of every description within the county.”
So what areas of El Dorado County government has the grand jury investigated recently?
In its 2020-2021 report, the grand jury looked into the county jails, as required, but also investigated county cemetery management, finding that El Dorado County’s cemeteries were “unsatisfactorily maintained,” and that “no one knows the exact number of bodies buried in El Dorado County.” In fact, no one even knows how many cemeteries and burial sites there are in the county.
And yes, there is a difference between a cemetery and a “burial site.” Namely, a “cemetery” must have at least six people buried there. Any fewer bodies, and it’s a “burial site.”
The previous year’s grand jury (a grand jury session runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following calendar year) produced reports on county credit card use, finding that the county’s policy on using credit cards was “outdated.” The 2019-2020 grand jury also investigated the use of drones by the district attorney, sheriff and department of transportation, discovering that the D.A.’s office had no written policy on how drones should be utilized.
Anyone at least 18 years old who has lived in El Dorado County for at least one year, and does not hold elective office, can apply to serve on the grand jury using the form at this link. County Superior Court judges then narrow down the candidates into a jury pool, and the names of the survivors are entered into a random drawing. The final 19 grand jurors are selected in that drawing.