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The Grand Jury

Frequently Asked Questions
about Civil Grand Juries

What do grand juries do?

In California, grand juries have three functions: (a) to indict, or refuse to indict, persons accused of crimes; (b) to issue accusations for malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance against public officers; and (c) to investigate specified local governments as required or permitted by law. The latter power, sometimes known as the “watchdog” function, consumes most of the time of grand juries. In California, some grand juries are created only for the purpose of indictments.

Who selects grand jurors?

The superior court has that authority under several statutes. Unless the court is creating an indictment-only grand jury, it can use almost any method to select civil grand jurors, providing that method conforms to statutes governing selection. The California Penal Code specifies who is and who is not qualified for grand jury service.

Can a citizen volunteer for grand jury service?

Judges in some of California’s 58 counties permit this method of becoming a grand juror. One cannot, however, volunteer to serve on a grand jury that has been created for indictment purposes only.

Who supervises grand juries or directs their operations?

Strictly speaking, no one is authorized to supervise them. The statute that specifies who grand jurors may turn to for assistance during their terms of service refers to such persons as legal advisors. However, superior court judges are authorized to exercise some authority with respect to the institution. Attempts by other officials, public employees, former grand jurors, or other citizens to control civil grand jurors should be regarded as jury tampering.

Why are grand juries secret bodies?

The law requires grand juries to conduct their deliberations and voting in closed sessions. Grand jurors are also sworn to secrecy and must not reveal what occurs in their private sessions to persons other than fellow grand jurors seated as a body. The courts have consistently upheld the principle of grand jury secrecy. For one reason, grand jurors sometimes receive complaints from the community about public officials or other persons. Some of these complaints are made vindictively or are otherwise so outrageous that if they were made public, a reputation could be severely damaged. The secrecy of grand jury proceedings also allows grand jurors to discuss all aspects of an issue during their sessions without fear of it becoming a divisive controversy in the community.

Do grand juries in California publish reports of their civil investigations, and are these reports secret? If not, where may one find them?

Grand jury final reports are public documents. They are intended to be reports to the community. Check with your county clerk for a copy of the most recent grand jury report. You may also find some grand jury reports on county Web sites.

Are grand juries effective?

Unfortunately, no independent, objective body evaluates all 58 county civil grand juries each year. However, some research has shown that public officials react positively in some counties to as many as one-third of all the recommendations that grand juries issue to improve local government. Some grand jury recommendations are not adopted by public officials because the recommendations are unlawful, trivial, poorly written, or extravagantly expensive to implement.

Is the grand jury a new institution in the United States?

Grand juries are one of the oldest forms of government, though they were eliminated in England, their home country in 1933. American colonists had grand juries in the mid-seventeenth century, and they have existed in California since the beginning of State government.

Do all states have grand juries, and is there a grand jury in California State government?

One authority claims that some form of civil grand jury exists in more than 30 states. No state has authorized grand juries the range of civil investigative authority that the institution has at its disposal in California. No statutory authority exists for a grand jury for California State government.

Where can I find more information about California grand juries?

See the description of the American Grand Jury Foundation’s publication, Grand Juries in California: A Study in Citizenship, on this site.


May 1, 2008

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