Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Grand jury experience is a chance to learn

On Feb. 28, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will designate March 2012 as Grand Jury Awareness Month. Like the Armed Services, the San Luis Obispo County grand jury is always looking for a few good men and women. The San Luis Obispo Superior Court is accepting applications for the 2012-13 county grand jury until March 29.

Grand juries have their origin in ancient English common law. The first grand juries were formed under King Henry II (1154-1189) and were divided into civil and criminal types. The first grand jury on American soil was formed by The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 to consider a murder case.

As a legacy of British common law, our California state Constitution requires the superior court in each county to convene a new grand jury each year. The purpose is to investigate county and city government operations and citizens’ complaints about their local government.

How good is that? A constitutionally required entity composed of citizens selected by the court to hold government agencies accountable in performing their duties?

Federal and state government agencies are exempt from the county grand jury investigations, as are private entities unless they have contracts with local government. Criminal cases in our county have their own specific grand juries when the district attorney convenes them.

More than 40 years ago, a California appeals court (Monroe v. Garrett, 1971) stated why California’s unique grand jury system is so important: “In our system of government, a grand jury is the only agency free from possible political or official bias that has an opportunity to see the picture of crime and the operation of government relating thereto on any broad basis. It performs a valuable public purpose in presenting its conclusions drawn from that overview. The public may, of course, ultimately conclude that the jury’s fears were exaggerated or that its proposed solutions are unwise. But the debate, which reports would provoke, could lead only to a better understanding of public governmental problems.”

Now is the time to apply for appointment to the 2012-13 grand jury. You do not need previous government or court experience, although there are some basic requirements most county residents can meet. The Superior Court and the Former Grand Jurors’ Association encourage you to apply. At the very least, your one year of grand jury service will help you to be a more informed citizen about local government and give you an opportunity to serve your community. You will certainly learn some interesting, entertaining and possibly unexpected things about your local governments. For me, it was a year well spent.

Grand jury service is entirely voluntary. You can expect to donate an average of 20 hours per week, but of course there is time for vacation and other activities if you plan ahead. You will receive $15 per day for your service and be reimbursed for mileage as well.

Go to the grand jury website at www.slocourts.net/grand_jury. There you will find the grand jury application form and other information, including previous grand jury reports. Read a few reports, and you will see the type of products you could be involved in creating.

Consider applying; it is hard work but challenging and enjoyable. If you want to talk about it, contact the president of the Former Grand Jurors’ Association, Jim Ragan, at 927-2723 or jimragan@charter.net.

Richard Riggins served on the SLO County grand jury in 2007-08. He is now a member of the board of directors of the Former Grand Jurors’ Association of San Luis Obispo County.