What makes the Civil Grand Jury so grand? It’s the number of people serving on it, said Peter Hertan, a Los Gatos citizen who served two consecutive terms on the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury from 2016 to 2018.
“‘Grand’ means it’s larger than a normal jury,” Hertan said, referring to the typical 12-person jury summoned for civil and criminal trials. “That’s what makes it grand.”
California counties typically select 19 grand jury members each year.
While most U.S. citizens over the age of 18 have been summoned for jury duty before, the number of people who serve on a civil grand jury at some point in their lives is far slimmer.
Unlike being selected for jury duty, serving on the civil grand jury is a voluntary commitment. Each year, the Santa Clara County Superior Court receives applications and selects 30 finalists whose names are put into a hopper and selected at random to fill out the 19-person jury, plus a handful of alternates. The court is currently accepting applications for the 2023 jury, which begins its term in January. The deadline to apply is Sept. 16.
The amount of time a juror spends working can vary, but in former member Henry Groth’s experience, he dedicated about 10 to 20 hours per week to the grand jury in the early months of his term and up to 40 hours per week in the last few months. Groth, who served in the 2017-18 jury, said being a member boils down to two main duties: investigating government entities, and publishing reports and recommendations based on the findings.
A grand jury usually pursues between five and 10 investigations in a year, Groth said, though not every juror works on every report.
“Based on those findings, they make recommendations for what the entity or entities are supposed to do to deal with those findings,” Groth said.
For instance, three different Santa Clara County grand juries over the last two decades have called for structural reform of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Those reports spurred Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) and San José Vice Mayor and current VTA Board Chair Chappie Jones to jointly call for a state audit of the VTA’s governance structure in June this year. The audit will investigate how members are selected and “the revolving door of members that are forced off of the board just as they are starting to understand how VTA works,” Berman said at the time.
But in Groth’s experience, this outcome is the exception, not the norm: He said it’s unusual for a grand jury report to bring about such a high degree of action or responsiveness from the entity being investigated.
“Usually they pretty much say, ‘You civil grand jurors, you’re a bunch of ankle-biters,’” Groth said. “They don’t say that, but that’s the feeling you get when you look at the responses to the recommendations.”
Groth believes that if grand jurors were paid a higher per diem, the compensation jurors receive for each day of service, their work might garner more respect.
“That would be one way for (grand jurors) to be viewed as professionals, not just amateurs that have time on their hands,” Groth said.
Currently, state law requires grand jury members to be paid a minimum $15 per diem, and Santa Clara County pays $20. While it’s by no means the lowest in the state – both Alameda and Contra Costa counties opt for the minimum $15 – Santa Clara County lags significantly behind places like Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, which each pay their civil grand jurors $50 to $60 per day.
Higher pay wouldn’t just increase respect for the grand jury, Groth said.
“The other problem with the grand juries over the last 10 years or so has been a lack of diversity,” he said. “It’s usually old white guys.”
Out of 69 prospective jurors considered for the 2022 Santa Clara County civil grand jury, 75% were white and 84% were over the age of 55.
Former two-term member Hertan agrees that offering higher compensation could encourage people to apply who are more representative of the community.
“It may not be that everybody takes it, but it needs to be offered,” Hertan said. “Right now, that compensation is just sufficient to eat lunch, nothing else. … You obviously can’t support yourself or a family on that.”
Hertan first served on the jury from July 2016 to June 2017, and then a second term from July 2017 to June 2018. Today, the Santa Clara County grand jury operates on the calendar year, rather than the fiscal year, so those selected for next year will serve from January to December.
“In my experience, it takes maybe three or four months before a new grand juror feels comfortable,” Hertan said. “Then you have to wrap up the last of what you’re doing three months before the end of the term in order to get things done. That leaves a middle of maybe six very productive months where you can do investigations and reports.”
According to California state law, grand juries can retain up to 10 jurors from the previous year into the next term, which are called holdovers. Hertan was one of just three holdovers during his second term because, at the time, Santa Clara County restricted the number of holdovers to a maximum of four.
From Hertan’s experience, having so few holdovers makes grand juries less productive, since the new members must devote a significant portion of their time to learning the ropes. He made it his goal to address the issue during his second term.
“The first thing I did in the beginning of July of 2017 was I got on a campaign to convince half of the members to hold over,” Hertan said. “I met with the presiding judge and said, let’s make that change. She empaneled a group of superior court judges, and they changed the practice within Santa Clara County to permit the full maximum of 10.”
Hertan ended up convincing six people to stay on for the 2018-19 term. Though he didn’t reach the maximum of 10, it was double the number of holdovers the jury had in previous years.
“That jury was very good as a consequence,” said former member Groth: The 2018-19 jury ended up publishing one of the reports that is now triggering VTA governance reform.
“It was very well-written,” Groth said. “It actually won an award for best report from the state organization, the California Civil Grand Jury Association, last year.”
Groth recommends grand jury service to anyone with the time and means to get involved.
“We need citizens to participate in our democracy broadly,” he said. “Voting is great, but not enough.”