Finishing up a year on the grand jury

Last fall I was talking with a former Superior Court Judge about the civil grand jury system that is in place in California. While he was appreciative of the general concept of having a citizen oversight system at the broad level of a grand jury, he did not seem impressed with the way members are selected.

The qualifications for serving on a grand jury, a stint that carries with it a yearlong commitment, are minimal. Applicants are self-selecting. No one can be compelled to serve on a civil grand jury.

To be eligible, an applicant initially completes a small amount of paperwork. The remaining determinants of eligibility are few. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, they must be citizens of the United States and they need to be comfortable with the English language.

People who meet these criteria, after being referred by a Judge of the Superior Court, are selected randomly; 19 individuals are then sworn in.

The problem my judge friend seemed to have was the random nature of the selection process. That, he suggested, leaves no real opportunity to appoint people with specific expertise, expertise that might prove useful as the group examines the behavior of elected and appointed government officials.

While that may be true, the random selection makes it nearly impossible to “pack the jury” in hopes of getting recommendations that are favorable to a specific cause or situation. That is a crucial protection.

The method used to put citizens on the grand jury resembles crowdsourcing. Wikipedia relies on that, as does a free and open marketplace. Neither is perfect, but each works.

The accuracy of Wikipedia depends on the minds and knowledge of many. With numerous eyes looking, errors are discovered and corrections are made.

In a similar way, the crowd in the marketplace determines the winners and losers in the distribution of goods. Popular products drive more production of those products and focuses efforts by competitors to improve the things they produce in order to capture part of what the crowd in the market wants to buy.

Automobiles and computers are a clear example of that. Sometimes, of course, the buyers succumb to foolishness, as when they purchase pet rocks, for example.

I suspect the grand jury has a similar record. Over the years it may have bought a pet rock or two, but in general it seems to get it right. There are additional values to the grand jury selection process.

People who volunteer for this sort of thing generally want to do a good job. They want to get it right. In addition, there is, usually, a vast array of knowledge and experience in the grand jury.

The synergy that comes of those minds conferring, discussing, exploring and investigating is nothing short of inspiring. Clumsy, sometimes, but moving ever forward, in fits and starts in the beginning, working toward a common end: getting it right.

As to securing expertise, the accident of random selection seems to work there, too. There was a remarkable expanse of skill and experience on the 2014-15 grand jury.

I just completed a year serving on that grand jury. It was challenging, frustrating and rewarding.

One of the members had a Ph.D. Another was an engineer. There was a retired Navy captain and another was a graduate of Annapolis. One juror was a former law enforcement officer. There was also a novelist, a former member of the news media and someone with a great deal of knowledge about the Department of Homeland Security.

The 2014-15 grand jury also included an attorney, a retired business executive and a former school board member. Another taught high school classes and there was a former union business agent in the mix. There was a stockbroker, social worker, county government employee and a school district administrator. Three had served on previous grand juries.

The new 2015-16 grand jury is impaneled. Applications for next year will be available in November. People who have the time can find great value in participating in this important citizen oversight of local government. It may be the one place politics does not get in the way.

Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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