Grand jurors have two functions: to weigh allegations of misconduct by officials, and to act as the public’s “watchdog.”
The San Benito County grand jury acts as a watchdog over local government agencies and officials. SevenMaps / Shutterstock Shutterstock Standard License
California is the only state whose constitution requires every county to maintain not only a standard criminal grand jury, to hand down indictments in felony cases, but a civil grand jury as well. Unlike its counterpart, which acts only in criminal cases brought by the district attorney’s office, the civil grand jury serves as a “watchdog” for local government.
According to a history of grand juries authored by the California Grand Jurors’ Association, since 1872 civil grand juries have been tasked with auditing government finances, reporting on the condition of prisons, and as of 1880, “to investigate county governments.”
Though the civil grand jury in San Benito, as in every California county, is part of the Superior Court system and receives a budget—albeit a modest one—from the county government, the grand jury is an independent body. Made up of 19 volunteers who receive only $15 per day, up to eight days per month for their efforts, the civil grand jury is designed to be free from influence or interference by local officials.
In San Benito, among the smallest of California’s 58 counties, however, that has been a point of contention. In a controversy unusual in the civil grand jury system, the grand jurors battled with the Board of Supervisors from 2015 to last year, after the supervisors cut off their daily stipend for attending subcommittee meetings, according to reporting by Noe Magaña of the local news site BenitoLink.
In 2015, the grand jurors blew past their budgetary limit for their one-year term, a limit that was all of $19,500. The jurors spent an additional $5,500 on subcommittee meetings and investigations.
As a result, the supervisors passed a county ordinance removing the $15 per day stipend for the subcommittee meetings. The civil grand jury pursues multiple investigations simultaneously, necessitating that the members split into smaller groups to carry out each investigation.
But one former grand juror at a contentious meeting in May of 2019 accused the board of cutting off the small stipend not due to budgetary issues, but because a grand jury investigation in 2013 found that County Administrative Officer Ray Espinoza had lied about possessing a bachelor’s degree before being hired, according to a separate BenitoLink report.
The supervisors reinstated payments for the smaller meetings last year, and the grand jury has come in well under budget since 2015. In 2019, according to Magaña’s reporting, the civil grand jury spent just $3,100 of its $22,000 budget.
While grand jurors for criminal cases are picked in the same fashion as trial jurors, in a process that starts with a jury duty summons in the mail, the civil grand jury relies on volunteers—county residents who want to have some impact on the operation of government.
The San Benito Civil Grand Jury has two primary functions, according to the duties spelled out by the county’s Superior Court: to “weigh” allegations of misconduct against public officials; and to “act as the public’s ‘watchdog’ by investigating and reporting upon various matters of county, city and special district governments.”
Though the civil grand jury does not issue legally binding decisions, it nonetheless exercises influence—by releasing annual reports of its investigations—over the operations and integrity of local government. Even the salaries of public officials fall under the grand jury’s purview. Jurors may issue recommendations on raises, or pay cuts.
The requirements for a civil grand juror in San Benito County are pretty simple. Other than possessing “natural faculties, of ordinary intelligence, and of sound judgment,” jurors must only be U.S. citizens over 18 years old, have lived in the county for one year before joining the grand jury, and speak “sufficient” English.
An application for civil grand jury service in San Benito County may be found at this link.