Friday, March 24, 2017
[San Joaquin County] Grunder: Importance of grand jury work
Blog note: this is a comprehensive statement about what grand juries do.
An envelope arrived the other day inviting the lady of the house to the county courthouse for possible jury duty. OK, such letters are not invitations. They're commands, as in "we can send the sheriff out, you know."
Nobody likes jury duty. Nobody sits by the mailbox in eager anticipation of a summons. But people need to show up. A jury of your peers requires peers.
I've served on two juries over the years: a criminal jury and two year-long terms on the civil grand jury. Great experiences both.
The criminal case was a pretty straight forward DUI case, but it was remarkable in my mind for the work the jurors put in. I cynically expected jurors to march into the jury room, take a quick vote and hit the door for lunch. Two days later we still were going over evidence and arguing. It may have been only a DUI case but to a person jurors understood a conviction would unpleasantly alter the defendant's life. Jurors also understood the seriousness of someone climbing behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Likewise, serving on the civil grand jury wasn't easy. The pay was crummy, the hours often long and disagreements among jurors sometimes sharp. But the work was important, what I learned was intoxicating and the experience was immensely satisfying.
Just to be clear, this county's civil grand jury does not investigate crime. It does not indict people. The civil grand jury is not a gotcha outfit. Jurors try to find ways to make government agencies more efficient, productive and responsive. Jurors do work closely with the county prosecutor's office — the assistant district attorney is the jury's liaison to that office — but if the jury does stumble across possible criminal activity, the matter is referred to prosecutors. Likewise, jurors also work with the county counsel and with the advice of the superior court judge who oversees the jury. And this county's jury also enjoys the considerable expertise and experience of a judicial clerk who literally sits beside the jury foreperson.
There are only two basic requirements the civil grand jury must fulfill: each prison and jail in the county must be inspected and a report must be issued on at least one public agency within the county. That's it.
Of course, that's not it at all. Every civil grand jury does much more. During the terms I served reports were issued on Manteca Unified, Stockton's utilities department, homelessness, south Stockton, private donation bins, Stockton Unified bus purchases, public defender fees, the registrar of voters and rural fire district consolidation.
The jury also followed up on the work of previous grand juries to see if agencies that were the subject of earlier reports responded as required to the findings and recommendations.
We toured prisons and jails, sewer and water plants, and the port. Some members rode along with police officers and firefighters. Members attended countless meetings of boards and commissions. Dozens and dozens of witnesses were called to help jurors understand how things work and what was going on when they didn't.
All of the report work was done in secret. You can't go out and blab about what witness X said about subject Y (witnesses are under the same requirement, but, well, people are people). Secrecy protects witnesses, but it also obligates the jury to verify information with multiple sources.
The learning curve was steep, but also exhilarating. It's fun to know stuff, to learn things. I can't think of a day I attended to jury business that I didn't learn something interesting.
There is a saying in newspapers that sunshine is a great disinfectant. That's an acknowledgment that a newspaper can't force anyone to do anything. It can only shine a light on a problem and hope someone takes action. It's the same with a civil grand jury. Jurors can't force an agency to do anything. They can only point things out — through findings — and suggest possible remedies — through recommendations. The real power of the grand jury (and the media) is focusing attention and sometimes in framing the public conversation.
None of this can happen without citizens willing to do the work, to serve. Consider this column a plea for county residents to get involved. Applications for the 2017-2018 civil grand jury are due by March 31. To apply, complete the application questionnaire on line at http://www.sjcourts.org/general-info/civil-grand-jury or call (209) 992-5290.
The process is pretty simple. Applicants usually are interviewed by the superior court judge who oversees the jury. The names of successful applicants chosen are randomly drawn from the pool during an open court session. Those picked are sworn in. The jury consists of 19 members and perhaps four to six alternates who serve if a regular member drops out during the July-to-June term.
Jurors receive an ID badge — no more removing your belt to clear courthouse security — a parking pass — no more paying for downtown parking — and the code that unlocks the door to the jury room where the magic occurs. Oh, and, of course, there's the $15 a day each juror gets for his or her efforts.
Early on there are two days of training, a tsunami of information and early organizational jury meetings to form committees and name officers (the foreperson is named by the judge and generally is a holdover juror). There also is an optional but helpful day-long report writing session given each fall in Sacramento by the state grand jury association and optional training offered by the local grand jury association made up of former jurors. All this is a way of saying you're not in this alone.
The grand jury — like a trial jury or a criminal grand jury — should reflect the population it serves, in our case a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational county. Such diversity brings a rich chest of ideas to the effort. But it takes peers willing to do the work. So apply. You won't regret it.
March 16, 2017
By Eric Grunder: Special to the Record