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A Year on the Grand Jury

By John Rosenberg

Some History of the Grand Jury System, Duties of the Jury, How to Apply

The scale of justice

Would you make a good grand juror?  Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Are you a good listener?  
Can you cooperate with 18 others in a common goal and in reaching a consensus? Can you keep a secret? (All of your work must be confidential.) 
Can you commit yourself to a full year of productive work? 
Can you ask thoughtful questions, review documents, conduct interviews, and write lucid reports? 
Are you interested in trying to increase the efficiency of local government, save taxpayer dollars and improve services?
Can you make a substantial contribution of time (at least 15 to 20 hours a week) in public service?

If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, you should be a good candidate, and I urge you to apply for grand jury service.  


I have just finished twelve months as a member of my county’s civil grand jury. It was generally a rewarding and interesting experience. And while I could have “re-upped” for another year, I was just as pleased to have completed my year of public service and to get back to my golf game which took a sabbatical during my tenure.   

Probably most people have no idea what a civil grand jury is or does. I knew something about grand juries having been a lawyer for forty years and being exposed to local government. A little grand jury history might therefore be helpful by way of background.  

The grand jury system developed from an early Anglo Saxon institution in England which performed functions as the watchdog on local government and to identify wrongdoers. Over time, its role changed as it took on responsibilities once performed by the church. By the seventeenth century, the grand jury had become a counterweight to the authority of the crown, helping to protect the rights of the people. Thus, instead of trying people upon the word of the king or his agents, the grand jury would determine whether a crime had been committed, and whether there was enough evidence to try the accused. Only after the grand jury had made that determination would an accused individual be put on trial before a “petit” jury, or a jury of one’s peers.  

In 1635, the first American grand jury was impaneled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thereafter, all of the colonies established grand juries. These early juries started the practice of returning “presentments”, or formal accusations, against public officials for misconduct. This function was different from criminal indictments which grand juries also issued as a part of the criminal justice process. This led to the development of the present-day grand jury as a civil watchdog.  

While all states and federal courts have criminal grand juries, only two states, California and Nevada, have civil grand juries. In California, every county is required to impanel each year both a civil and a criminal grand jury. Civil grand juries spend a year representing the citizens of their county as overseers of local government. They look at how public funds are spent and how spending is documented, examine jails, juvenile halls and prisons located within the county, examine charges of willful misconduct by public officials in office, and recommend ways to increase efficiency, improve public service, and save taxpayer dollars. The grand jury speaks only through the public release of reports that are issued as a result of its investigations. 

In addition, the grand jury investigates complaints from private citizens about public agencies within its jurisdiction, as well as complaints from individuals imprisoned within the county. The grand jury has no enforcement power. Affected elected public officials and governmental agencies to which the reports are directed must by law respond to the findings and recommendations contained in the issued reports within 60 or 90 days, depending on who is the respondent.  

A civil grand jury is composed of 19 individuals who are at least 18 years of age and are citizens of the United States. One popular criticism of the grand jury system is that it tends to be comprised of people who are “too male, too white, and too old”. Since a grand juror must be able to devote up to 30 hours per week to grand jury service, and the pay is negligible, most jurors are basically retired. 

For example, on my jury were four attorneys (much too many of these types for the system to work efficiently), a chemical engineer, a psychologist (who left the jury after a month because he found he couldn’t work with a group of 18 other people), a medical doctor, three city planners, a sociologist, an IRS auditor, a hospital administrator, a newspaper executive (who was invaluable during the report editing process), a foreign service officer, and an assortment of community activists and concerned citizens. All but one individual were retired or didn’t work. We had three women and 16 men, and no minorities.  

One becomes eligible to be a grand juror by first applying to their local superior court. After completing a written application, applicants are interviewed by the Presiding Judge. A pool of 30 candidates is designated by the Presiding Judge, and on selection day a panel of 19 is chosen by lot, with names being literally drawn out of the jury wheel. Several alternates, to serve if a juror resigns or is removed, are also chosen by lot. Grand jurors are then sworn in by the court for a term of one year, commencing July 1 and ending June 30 of the following year.  

Once the jury is chosen, and a foreperson is selected by the Presiding Judge, the jury then organizes itself into committees such as Law & Justice, Administration & Finance, Education, Environment, and Health & Human Services. We even had a Social committee that planned monthly events and get-togethers, some with spouses and some just among the jurors. 

All of the work of the jury is confidential. The only way the jury can speak is through written reports which it issues during the year. On my jury, we issued 14 reports which was sort of a record I am told. These reports ran the gambit from disaster preparedness, bio-terrorism responsiveness, courthouse security, school safety, psychiatric care, to an analysis of county government, the county free library system, and the inter-agency relationship between a water agency and a sewage district. We also received 44 complaints which were referred to committees and investigated. Of those complaints three resulted in written reports and the remainder were handled in one way or another, either by a suggested resolution or by referral to an appropriate public official or agency.  

By law, each year the grand jury must visit and “inspect” all detention facilities within the county. We were given tours of our county jail and juvenile hall. And since San Quentin Prison was in our county, we spent a day there on a tour which was unlike the one visitors can take. We had lunch with the Warden (who, by the way, is the first woman to ever serve in that capacity in the state prison system), spent some time out in the yard among the prisoners (a little unnerving at times), visited the prison industries section where they make furniture for all of the state offices (no, they do not make license plates there), and were taken to the death row adjustment center where about 500 people are housed awaiting their fate. We also visited the gas chamber which is not used anymore for gassing, as lethal injection is the preferred method these days.  

I really enjoyed the investigative work and the interviews. Our grand jury ID card allowed us to open many doors at all levels of local government. For the most part people were cooperative. Only once were we required to resort to the issuance of a subpoena. I was struck with the dedication of the government workers we interviewed. Although many complained that the pay was too low and there were problems of finding affordable housing in my county, they all were quite professional in performing their duties.  

Why should you volunteer for grand jury service? You will become involved with other interested citizens in learning more about city and county government and that of special districts. As far as I know, no other volunteer service gives you the chance to make a difference on such a large scope.  


JOHN W. ROSENBERG is a third generation Californian.  He was born in Oakland, grew up in Piedmont, and went to the Univ. of California, where he received his AB degree in economics and his JD degree from that university’s Boalt Hall School of Law.  After practicing law with his father for six years in Oakland, he relocated to Marin County where, for almost 40 years, he practiced construction law, had a government contracts practice, and represented a number of local municipalities.  He is now retired from private practice and is devoting himself to the field of Alternate Dispute Resolution as a mediator, arbitrator and special master on a part-time basis. He is married to Susie Rosenberg, a long-time Marin resident, and has two adult children, three step children and a recently-born grand daughter.


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