The Grand Jury—Explained

PUBLISHED JUN 3, 2021 12:00 A.M.
Share this:  
The Santa Cruz civil grand jury meets in County Government Center

The Santa Cruz civil grand jury meets in County Government Center   Santa Cruz Grand Jury   YouTube Screen Capture

In July 2020, the Santa Cruz city government came under withering criticism for failing to enforce workplace behavior policies, leaving city employees feeling unsupported when they file harassment claims, and causing new elected officials to enter their positions poorly prepared to serve the public, according to a report by Todd Guild of the Good Times newspaper.

“The public has lost confidence in the City Leadership’s ability to function effectively,” the critics said. Quite a slam.

But that full-barrel blast did not come from a grassroots activist group, or even from political foes of the current City Council members. Instead, it came from another government body, an all-volunteer group under the supervision of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court—the Civil Grand Jury.

Each of California’s 58 counties seats a civil grand jury every year. In fact, California is the only state in the union whose constitution requires counties to maintain civil grand juries. In many counties, the civil grand jury is a separate entity from the criminal grand jury, whose sole function is to investigate and deliver indictments in felony criminal cases and is guided by prosecutors working for the District Attorney, the civil grand jury’s job is to hold government itself accountable. In Santa Cruz County, the civil grand jury does not get involved in criminal cases.

In Santa Cruz, as throughout California, the civil grand jury acts as a watchdog body, conducting numerous investigations each term, which runs from July 1 of each year, to June 30 of the following year.

Though its findings and rulings carry no legal weight, and require no specific action other than a formal response from the target of the investigation, the civil grand jury serves a vital function in California by forcing city and county officials and agencies to maintain a high level of transparency and, at least in theory, integrity—or risk being called out in the highly public forum of a civil grand jury report.

The civil grand jury initiates investigations in response to citizen complaints, which are handled in confidence. But the grand jury is not a complaint bureau. It uses complaints to pick out areas of government that appear to need closer scrutiny, criticism and, ideally, improvement.

While the proceedings of the civil grand jury—like those of the criminal grand jury—are held behind closed doors, at the end of each term it issues a series of reports, as well as a “ consolidated final report.” In addition to its scathing critique of government workplace policies in the city of Santa Cruz—in a report titled A Failure to Communicate — Restoring Trust and Accountability in Santa Cruz City Government—the county’s civil grand jury also issued reports in its 2019-2020 term on 10 other topics ranging from the county jail system to the municipal DeLaveaga Golf Course.

What could a grand jury say about a golf course? Well, for starters, the course “has consistently lost money for the City during recent years of operation,” and “adds deficits to a general fund that is already stressed from growing pension liability costs and facility sustainment debt.”

The report on jails was titled Fail in the Jail, which in itself gives readers a pretty good idea of what the grand jurors uncovered. The civil grand jury also critiqued the county’s online information services, finding information on the web to be “sometimes inaccurate and out-of-date,” while also sounding the alarm—quite an alarming alarm, frankly—about the security of voter information, in a report titled Voter Data – Registering Concerns.

A Civic Duty

How does a Santa Cruz County resident earn the right to serve on the civil grand jury? While each of the two grand juries consists of 19 members, the civil selection procedure is very different from the process for the criminal grand jury.

Just like with trial, or “petit” juries, county residents will receive a summons in the mail, calling them to report for jury duty on a criminal grand jury. It is then a civic duty, and legal obligation, to respond and if called, to serve on the criminal grand jury.

Civil grand jurors must apply for the job—which is indeed a job, though it pays only a small stipend of $15 per day and no more than $30 per week, plus free parking and mileage reimbursement for the commute from home to the County Government Center at 701 Ocean Street, as well as for travel on official grand jury business. Civil grand jurors are expected to put in 15 to 20 hours per week on meetings and investigations.

Applications for the civil grand jury may be downloaded from this link, then filled out and mailed to Office of the Jury Commissioner, 701 Ocean Street Room 101C, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Grand jurors must be at least 18, U.S. citizens and have been Santa Cruz County residents for at least a full year. Sitting elected officials, convicted felons, and jurors serving on current trials are not eligible.

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

Related Articles
Santa Cruz is one of 19 California counties to contract out its public defender's office.
Santa Cruz Public Defender and District Attorney Explained
After 60 years, the county hired its first full-time public defender.
With just two courthouses, Santa Cruz County has one of the smaller court systems in the Bay Area.
The Superior Court—Explained
One of 58 superior court systems in the state, here's how the Santa Cruz County courts work.
Join Us Today!