Thoughts on the 2013-14 grand jury term in Nevada County
Once again, the constitutionally mandated annual ritual has begun: The courts are selecting and impanelling grand juries in each of California’s 58 counties for the 2013-2014 term.
So we ask: Whom should they be looking for and what is needed to perpetuate and preserve the grand jury institution, an institution that epitomizes democracy in action — truly government “by the people?” Where else can citizens take a close look at their local government and make recommendations to improve it?
What kind of jurors can be successful with this entirely new experience? Our grand juries need people committed to, and capable of, embracing the concept of self-government — people who believe that civic responsibility to one’s community is imperative in a democracy. Grand jurors must think independently, be open-minded, have the ability to rise above divisiveness and self-interest and must not be afraid to be assertive — though not antagonistic — to serve as citizen “watchdogs.” This is an experience that also requires people to have certain expectations of their government: expectations that look at local governmental entities and officials and ask if are they operating legally, effectively, economically, openly and for the good of the people. In short, are these entities and officials accountable to their citizens?
Grand juries must understand why their credibility is so important. Pursuing inconsequential investigations, misusing the grand jury’s power, venturing outside its jurisdiction and intruding on policy-matters will bring criticism and disrespect for the grand jury institution. Grand juries need to work hard, make good choices and do significant work to be lauded and respected by their citizens, by the media and, particularly, by local public officials. This respect does not just come with the territory, but rather, it must be earned. The most effective way to do this is for grand juries to undertake meaningful, useful investigations; to make factually supported findings; and to offer needed, feasible recommendations for improvements to their local government. If that is accomplished, it will make implementation of their recommendations more likely and most certainly will perpetuate and preserve the grand jury institution.
A closing thought: Trivial is not a pursuit for grand juries! Those that perform effectively will successfully fulfill their responsibility not only to their citizens but also to the grand jury institution. Good luck to all 58 grand juries in the 2013-2014 term. Make us proud!
Bill Trautman is a retired attorney from Napa. He is president of the California Grand Jurors’ Association, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the California grand Jury system in its civil oversight role.
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