What are Civil Grand Juries?
California has 40 million residents living across 58 counties. Every year, each county convenes a civil grand jury of residents to investigate, write reports, declare findings, and make recommendations to local governments. Unlike criminal grand juries, which issue indictments, civil grand juries are the public’s watchdog conducting oversight of local governments and public officials. And local governments are required by state law to respond to the findings and recommendations of the grand jury.
Constitutional and Legal Background
Article 1, Section 23 of the California Constitution states: “One or more grand juries shall be drawn and summoned at least once a year in each county.” The state of California has 58 counties, and each year, the county courts are responsible for drawing and summoning a civil grand jury. In counties with populations over 4 million, at least 29 and up to 40 individuals are drawn as grand jurors. In all other counties, at least 25 and up to 30 individuals are drawn.
According to California Penal Code, Part 2, Title 4, Chapter 3, Article 2 “The grand jury shall investigate and report on the operations, accounts, and records of the officers, departments, or functions of the county including those operations, accounts, and records of any special legislative district or other district in the county created pursuant to state law for which the officers of the county are serving in their ex officio capacity as officers of the districts.”
Additionally, “The grand jury may at any time examine the books and records of any incorporated city or joint powers agency located in the county. In addition to any other investigatory powers granted by this chapter, the grand jury may investigate and report upon the operations, accounts, and records of the officers, departments, functions, and the method or system of performing the duties of any such city or joint powers agency and make such recommendations as it may deem proper and fit.”
In other words, California county civil grand juries are legally allowed to investigate any local government within the county, including the county itself.
A Brief History of California Civil Grand Juries
The 1849 Constitution of California mentions the term grand jury once. Section 8 declares: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime,… unless on presentment or indictment of a grand jury”. After reviewing the constitutional convention proceedings (Browne, 2019), it does not appear that the concept of grand juries resulted in any recorded debate during the state’s founding.
The state’s constitution was revised again in 1879. And the 1879 Constitution does have additional language regarding grand juries. In Article 1, Declaration of Rights, Section 8 reads as follows: “Offenses heretofore required to be prosecuted by indictment shall be prosecuted by information, after examination and commitment by a Magistrate, or by indictment, with or without such examination and commitment, as may be prescribed by law. A grand jury shall be drawn and summoned at least once a year in each county.” Unlike 30 years earlier, during this constitutional convention, there was a robust debate about the existence, purpose, and utility of grand juries (Stockton & Willis, 1880). While the debate was multi-faceted, it essentially boiled down to two sides: support or opposition to grand juries. Supporters of grand juries prevailed. Nearly a hundred years would pass before the constitutional text about grand juries were altered again.
In 1974, the state legislature voted to put Assembly Constitutional Amendment 60, later known as Proposition 7, on the statewide ballot. The proposition reorganized Article 1, repealed Section 8, and created Section 23. Section 23 simply read as: “One or more grand juries shall be drawn and summoned at least once a year in each county.”
The significance of this change was twofold. First, Proposition 7 placed the concept of grand juries in its own section. Unlike the prior 95 years where the concept was grouped with prosecution of offenses, this standalone section clarified the prominence of grand juries in the state’s system of governance. Secondly, the amendment clarified that more than one grand jury could be drawn and summoned within a county. While beyond the scope of this manuscript, it would be interesting to see how many counties employed this new discretionary power since 1975.
This brief history serves to demonstrate that California’s civil grand juries were a contested political institution in the early years of the state. However, as time passed, the presence of this local institution, which is not electorally accountable, not representative of county populations, and not transparent in its agenda setting, proceedings, or decision making, is firmly established.
 The debate consisted of 13 state constitutional convention delegates: 5 delegates (Campbell, Barbour, Beerstecher, Huestis, and Freeman) spoke in opposition to grand juries, and 9 delegates (Waters, Herrington, Estee, Brown, Barry, Laine, O’Donnell, and Shafter) spoke in support of grand juries.