How Civil Grand Juries Make Government Better

Citizen oversight of local government is baked into the California Constitution.

PUBLISHED JUL 7, 2024 5:12 P.M.
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Participation on Civil Grand Juries is open to all Californians of voting age.

Participation on Civil Grand Juries is open to all Californians of voting age.   Prostock-studio   Shutterstock/standard

One of the most important ways California citizens can exercise oversight of their local government is by serving on a civil grand jury.

As mandated by the California Constitution and Penal Code, the Superior Court of every county convenes a grand jury to serve every year from July 1 through June 30. The members of the grand jury are empowered to investigate, report and make recommendations on the functioning of local government entities operating in whole or in part in each county. The grand jury is a totally independent body unbeholden to the entities it investigates and has broad access to public officials, employees and records. 

Subjects of investigation are chosen by the grand jury and may be selected based on citizen complaints, issues raised by grand jury members, or followups or referrals from previous grand juries. The California Penal Code emphasizes inquiries into the condition and management of detention facilities within the county

Investigations seek to determine if the subject is following the law governing the entity’s operation, or if the operations of the entity are efficient and effective.

The civil grand jury is advised by a judge of the Superior Court, the District Attorney and the County Counsel in matters of law.

The findings of investigations are shared with the subject entities, which are required to respond. Grand jury reports and agency responses are made available to the public and generally published on the county website.

Some county civil grand juries release a separate report for each individual investigation. Others publish a single report at the conclusion of the one-year term, at the end of June.

The grand jury has no power to enforce its findings. Subject entities are free to dispute grand jury findings and ignore recommendations, and often do. City or county district attorneys may choose to pursue criminal investigations if they are warranted by the civil grand jury report. Public pressure on local officials is often required to enact recommended reform or changes.

Who Serves on a Civil Grand Jury?

Grand jury service is open to all US citizens 18 years of age or older with residency in their  county of at least one year. People may not serve on a grand jury if they are already serving on another jury, been discharged from grand jury service within the preceding year, been convicted of a felony, or are serving as an elected officialCK.

Members of the community can apply to serve on the grand jury, and some counties mail postcards to residents soliciting applications. Background checks are usually undertaken to ensure applicants meet the grand juror requirements. Applicants generally attend an orientation meeting with a judge who explains the grand jury functions and process. A selection committee of superior court judges chooses jurors from the applicant pool.

The number of grand jurors varies across counties. Inyo County has 11, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Sacramento Counties, among others, have 19, and Los Angeles County has 23.

Basic requirements for serving on the grand jury call for normal intelligence and proficiency with the English language, and there is a desire and intent to draw from the widest cross-section of county residents. 

That said, the nature of the work requires the reading and processing of technical information about operations, the law, finances and budgets. Grand jury service also requires a substantial time commitment and is not significantly compensated, so is not realistically open to many working people.

Taken seriously, civil grand jury service can be a lot of work—much like a job. But it’s not like other jobs. Ultimately, it’s the job of making California government work better. 

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