Grand jurors locally and around the state are fighting a bill in the Legislature that they say would severely weaken grand juries, including San Luis Obispo County’s 19-member civil panel.
AB 622 calls for greater openness in grand jury proceedings. Specifically, it would require that sworn testimony be given in public, except in personnel matters.
That provision, critics say, would scare away people who want to testify but fear losing their jobs or other retribution if they do.
“If these are open to the public, it would definitely cut down on whistle-blowers,” said James Ragan of Cambria, a former San Luis Obispo County grand juror and member of the San Luis Obispo Former Grand Jurors Association.
Ragan notes that the California Grand Jurors Association has formally opposed AB 622.
The association quotes the California Supreme Court, which, while extolling openness in government, adds that there are two fundamental reasons for maintaining secrecy with grand juries.
“Secrecy serves to protect the reputations of those who may be unjustly accused during the course of a watchdog (civil) investigation,” the court said, according to the association’s website.
“Secrecy also provides the proper atmosphere in which to generate uninhibited testimony from county employees who might otherwise be intimidated by political and employment considerations.”
AB 622 also allows witnesses to have lawyers present in some instances, which “would compromise the grand jury’s ability to work confidentially,” the association writes.
That provision also would boost costs, because it would force the county to have attorneys present as well, the association notes.
Lawyers traditionally are not allowed directly to participate or observe at the investigation stage of any proceeding, according to the association.
There are two types of grand juries — criminal and civil. In San Luis Obispo County, the key body is the civil grand jury, which consists of 19 members and typically compiles 15 to 20 reports a year.
The local civil grand jury investigates government operations. In recent years, its reports have led to changes in the county’s Department of Social Services and the Parks and Recreation Department, among others.
A judge can convene a criminal grand jury, but Ragan says he does not believe the county has done so since the 1980s.
AB 622, introduced by Sacramento Democrat Roger Dickinson, has passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee and is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Central Coast Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, said he will not get to vote on the bill until it reaches the Assembly floor.
However, he expressed concern about “the potential impact of the measure on the ability of a grand jury to conduct thorough investigations.”
“While I appreciate the author’s desire to make the process more transparent,” he wrote in an email, “I believe that the grand jury process works precisely because grand jurors are able to do their work without being unduly influenced by public opinion or pressure from public officials.
“I fear that a policy that defaults to open proceedings jeopardizes that idea,” Achadjian said.
Achadjian added that he wants to hear from district attorneys before he makes up his mind.