So You Want To Be a Sacramento County Grand Juror? Here’s What It Takes

The Civil Grand Jury serves as the citizen watchdog over the operations of local government.

PUBLISHED NOV 23, 2021 10:05 P.M.
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Sacramento’s grand jury investigates a wide range of government activities.

Sacramento’s grand jury investigates a wide range of government activities.   Anthony Ramos / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 3.0 Share Alike License

Grand juries have existed in various forms not just for centuries, but for millennia. As far back as ancient Athens, home of Plato and Aristotle, a group of prominent citizens known as the Areopagus (named for the large rock formation where the group’s proceedings took place) served as an advisory body for the king. After the Athenian monarchy went belly-up, the body became a supreme legal authority in the city-state.

So what does this little ancient history lesson have to do with California, and Sacramento County, today? In ancient Greece, the Areopagite Council was not only charged with bringing legal charges against Athenians accused of wrongdoing, but also with overseeing the operation of the city’s democratic government.

The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Grand Juries

While “democracy” in ancient Athens was quite different, and far less democratic, than what we understand the concept to mean today, the Areopagus has a good case for being recognized as civilization’s first civil grand jury. As opposed to a criminal grand jury, which hands down indictments for alleged crimes, a civil grand jury acts as a watchdog over local government, and a kind of sounding board for citizen complaints against government agencies, special districts  and officials.

The criminal grand jury system is employed by the federal government, and exists in 42 of the 50 states. But only California requires every county to maintain a civil grand jury to investigate public functions. In all but 15 counties, the civil grand jury is a wholly separate entity from any criminal grand jury. In those 15, a single grand jury handles both functions—though its criminal role is required much less frequently.

The guidelines for areas that the grand jury may probe are laid out in California’s Penal Code, Section 925, which states, “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.”

At the end of each annual session, the civil grand jury issues a written report summarizing the findings of its various investigations, and its recommendations for fixing whatever problems it finds.

Sacramento Grand Jury Investigates Range of Issues

The 2019-2020 Sacramento County Grand Jury report covered a number of topics, including how neighborhood gentrification and “revitalization” displaces residents. The grand jury found that not only did the city’s recent project to renovate several historic hotels put many low-income, senior and disabled residents out of their homes, but that there was no record of where those people went, and how they’re now doing.

The report also examines rising dropout rates in Sacramento high schools, and how to lower them, as well as the Sacramento Police Department staffing crisis. In a topic that was particularly timely in 2020, the grand jury also investigated election security in Sacramento County. The grand jury found that while the county Department of Technology had already put in place several key security measures, it “was not regularly performing vulnerability scans and penetration testing of Sacramento County information technology systems.”

The civil grand jury may undertake a specific investigation in response to a citizen complaint—as was the case in its election security investigation—or simply on its own initiative. California civil grand juries are also assigned the responsibility of investigating and reporting on the operation and conditions of prisons and jails.

Any prison, jail or even holding cell facility in a county, including state prisons, comes under the investigative purview of the civil grand jury.

Perhaps the most important aspect of California’s civil grand jury system, however, is that it is composed entirely of ordinary citizens. In Sacramento County, there are 19 of them, plus 11 alternate members, on the civil grand jury. Some other counties maintain a 23-member civil grand jury.

And though the civil grand jury is part of the Superior Court system and a judge from the county Superior Court acts as an adviser in Sacramento County—Judge Judy Hersher filled that role for the 2020-2021 session—the grand jury remains independent. Outside of the Penal Code guidelines, no government or judicial official tells the jurors what to investigate, or what their annual reports should say.

Judge Steven M. Gevercer was appointed the new grand jury adviser for the 2021-2022 session, after Hersher announced her retirement.

What Makes a Good Civil Grand Juror

What does it take to become a civil grand juror in Sacramento County?

“We look to people with life experience, who can work compatibly with people and can bring to bear critical thinking to very important topics,” Hersher told the Sacramento Bee. “They’re charged with looking at the facts in a very unbiased way and presenting that for people.”

Which all sounds very nice. But perhaps the most important qualities a grand juror can possess are dedication and time. Grand jury service, while technically paid, is really volunteer work. Sacramento County grand jurors are expected to commit between 25 and 35 hours per week, with a token payment of only $30 per day, plus parking fees.

According to the Sacramento County Grand Jury Handbook, there are only a few hard-and-fast requirements: grand jurors must be United States citizens of at least 18 years in age. They must also have resided in Sacramento County for one full year, at minimum. They must have a good command of the English language, and “possess intelligence, sound judgment, and good character.”

Current elected officials and people currently serving on a trial jury or who have served on a grand jury in the past year are not eligible. Nor are former public officials who have been “convicted of malfeasance in office, or any other high crime.”

Grand jury sessions start on July 1 of each year, with new jurors recruited and selected well in advance. The application deadline falls in January, and is followed by a group meeting in February where applicants get the rundown from judges on what it takes to be a grand juror.

The judges then narrow the field down to about 30. The final 19 are picked at random in a drawing held in June.

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