Nevada County’s Government Watchdog — the Grand Jury System Explained

Nevada County grand jurors perform a citizen watchdog function unique to California.

PUBLISHED JUN 15, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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The Nevada County grand jury performs a citizen watchdog role unique to California counties.

The Nevada County grand jury performs a citizen watchdog role unique to California counties.   Frank Schulenburg / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Public License

For years before California voters in 1996 passed Proposition 215, the country’s first law legalizing marijuana, at least for medically approved purposes, Nevada County was a haven for the cannabis-growing industry. Of course, the entire industry was illegal then, and even today—after the legalization of recreational pot in 2018—fewer than 100 of the estimated 3,500 to 4,000 cannabis cultivators in the county have legal permits.

The failure to convert the local cannabis industry into a legal, regulated and perhaps most importantly taxpaying enterprise is costing Nevada County hard, cold cash. But one group offered a series of answers to solve the problem, a group that comprises an often-overlooked but crucial piece of the legal system. The grand jury.

In any county, anywhere in the United States, grand juries have one function that regularly makes news. They hand down criminal indictments. But in California, unlike in any other state, each county must also maintain a civil grand jury, which can be separate from the criminal grand jury. In the case of smaller counties such as Nevada, a single grand jury serves the dual criminal and civil functions.

In Nevada County, as in all of the 58 California counties, the grand jury in its civil function spends its full-year term investigating local government functions and entities. At the end of each term, which runs from July 1 to the following June 30, the grand jury issues reports with the findings of their various investigations, and recommendations on how to fix the problems it inevitably uncovers. 

That’s exactly what happened in the 2020-2021 grand jury session, when the jurors responded to a citizen complaint about rampant illegal cannabis cultivation with an in-depth investigation, culminating in a report titled “Cannabis in Nevada County: A Growing Problem” (pun certainly intended). 

Weed, Votes and Water 

What does a grand jury actually do to investigate such a “growing problem” in the county? In the report, the grand jurors helpfully listed the steps they took to probe the illegal pot scene. Those included interviews with cannabis industry leaders, as well as state and county officials. The jurors also questioned citizens who had lodged complaints about illegal cannabis-growing, and researched the county’s own laws regarding cannabis cultivation, as well as laws in other counties, and at the state level.

In addition to the cannabis problem, the grand jury in 2020-2021 also investigated and issued reports on how the county conducted its 2020 elections—the presidential election as well as local and county elections—and such rather less sexy topics as the county’s vehicle fleet maintenance, the reasonableness of Irrigation District fees and payment methods, and the state of county Joint Powers Authorities, which the jury found “difficult to understand and monitor, leading to possible misuses and abuses.”

All Nevada County grand jury reports, covering almost every aspect of local government and services from affordable housing to water treatment, can be downloaded from the county’s Superior Court online site

Old Fashioned Proto-Democracy

Though California is the only state that requires counties to maintain permanent grand juries as watchdog organizations holding government to account, the system dates back nine centuries to medieval England, when King Henry II issued a set of orders known collectively as the Assize of Clarendon. One of the most important reforms in the history of the English—and later American—legal system, the assize (pronounced e-SIZE, and not some other way) took the power to hold criminal proceedings away from the church and other local authorities by assigning a 12-man (and in those days, it was all men)  jury to report back to the king on criminal matters and accusations.

But the “Grand Inquest” as it was called also acted as a check on the monarch’s power to carry out prosecutions for personal or political reasons. And the inquest served an early civil function as well, making it a forerunner of the California system. The early English grand jury was tasked with investigating how bridge and road repairs were carried out, as well as the condition and “defects” of jail facilities.

The jail oversight function remains to this day. California grand juries are required to inspect and evaluate county jail conditions and management on an annual basis.

Committed Citizens Doing Civic Duty

Today, thankfully, there’s no king to pick the grand jurors in California’s system. Instead that responsibility falls to the Superior Court. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, be able to read and write English, and have lived in the county for at least one year. In addition, prospective grand jurors may not have a felony conviction on their records, must not be simultaneously serving on a trial jury, and may not be a current elected official.

The Nevada County Superior Court, which makes the final juror selection, lists some other “desirable” qualities in grand jurors, such as reasonably good health and open-mindedness to the other people’s points of view. Grand jury duty is not a casual commitment, and it requires plenty of give and take among the 19 members seated each year-long session. According to the court website, grand jurors can expect to put in between 10 and 25 hours per week. But actual jurors have made it known that the time commitment can be much greater than that estimate.

Other than general statements about what it takes to serve on the jury, grand jurors are required to keep all of their proceedings confidential. Only the contents of the grand jury’s final reports are made public, and despite inevitable internal disagreements, the grand jury is required to speak with a single voice. So the ability to keep a secret would also appear to be a necessary qualification for service. 

The confidentiality agreement does not expire when the annual grand jury session ends, either. The secrecy oath is for life.

Aspiring grand jurors can apply online on the Nevada County Superior Court site. Residents of the county who have a complaint that they would like the grand jury to investigate can also submit that complaint online. Not every complaint will trigger an investigation. But the court promises that all complaints will be “carefully reviewed” by the jury, before the jurors make their decision on whether or not to open an investigation. 

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