The Role of the Civil Grand Jury

This research aims to fill the gap in current understanding of the work of these grand juries and its place in governmental regulation in California.

Investigating the California civil grand jury.


Research background

California is one of only two U.S. states (the other is Nevada) to have retained the civil grand jury which, although dating back to Magna Carta, has fallen out of use in all other states.

In each of California's 58 counties, a group of ordinary citizens is chosen every year to serve as grand jurors. The civil grand jury (CGJ) is not the same as the grand juries summoned to consider evidence in criminal trials.

They derive their authority from the California Constitution, Article 1, Section 23, and have responsibilities to:

  • Act as a public watchdog by investigating and creating reports on the affairs of local government
  • Make annual examinations of operations, accounts and records of officers, departments or functions of the county, including any special districts
  • Look into the quality and management of the county’s jails and prisons
  • Weigh criminal charges against public officials and determine if indictments should be returned.

As the California Supreme Court explained inMcClatchy Newspapers v Superior Court, 26 Cal. 2d 386 (1945), it is the watchdog function that is by far the most played by the modern grand jury in California.

The juries have broad investigatory powers in respect of all aspects of city/county government and can examine all of the county’s public records and the books and financial expenditures of any government agency within the county, including cities, schools, boards and commissions. 

All of California’s civil grand juries publish an annual report, with their findings and subjects of investigations are required to respond to the presiding judge of the county.

These reports represent a valuable source of information concerning the work of local governments in this important state.

Research aims

This research aims to fill the gap in current understanding of the work of these grand juries and its place in governmental regulation in California. It investigates the annual reports of the civil grand juries in each of California’s 58 counties by reference to a number of themes:

Prison Conditions

A study of findings in relation to prison conditions has been undertaken and completed. Its findings are reported in the San Diego Law Review for 2020 (see Nkem Adeleye, Anne Richardson Oakes & Julian Killingley, California’s Civil Grand Juries and Prison Conditions 2007-17.

Conditions in California’s prisons were the subject of trenchant criticism by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011) and sparked a number of civil rights violation legal actions against sheriffs and counties.

CGJs are under a statutory responsibility to review the conditions of the public prisons within their counties each year. The study examined such reviews in 15 counties over a 10-year period and assessed the ability of CGJs to detect conditions likely to give rise to civil rights litigation against their county.

It concluded that the picture was mixed with some CGJs showing strong leadership and holding sheriffs and prison wardens to account while others showed little interest in critiquing the management of prison populations.

Environmental issues

California is unusual in that it is home to America’s second largest city but has extensive wilderness areas.

It supports the Sierra Club, the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States with 3.8 million members. Despite being the most populous State in the Union, it is prey to regular earthquakes, extensive wildfires, volcanic eruptions, and the longest drought in its history lasting from 2011-2017.

It is therefore unsurprising that citizen grand jurors have taken an interest in environmental issues

An early review of CGJ investigations has revealed interest in topics ranging from air pollution, earthquake and wildfire preparedness, flood control, waste and vegetation management, algal blooms, insect infestations, to water conservation.

This aspect of the project will review the scope and impact of CGJ inquiries and recommendations and evaluate the responses of local government to environmental problems identified by CGJs.

Public participation and transparency

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” Gov’t Code § 54950.

This aspect of the project involves Civil Grand Jury reports concerning compliance with California’s Brown Act which mandates public participation and transparency in local government decision-making.

This Act (Government Code sections 54950-54963, referred to as the “Brown Act”) is intended to provide public access to and participation in decision-making meetings of California local government agencies.

It was enacted more than 60 years ago but although there have been frequent investigations by the CGJs there has never been a successful prosecution for breaching it.

Intended outcomes

The U.S. federal constitution allocates responsibilities and powers between the federal and state governments but politically American government operates on three levels, with local governments playing a key role in delivering basic services such as policing, fire prevention, education, street and road maintenance, mass transit, and sanitation.

According to the 2012 Census of Governments, there are 89,004 local governments in the United States but generalisations about their work are difficult because the numbers involved make this an area that is under-researched. Research must be undertaken on a state by state basis if it is to be meaningful.  

This study focusses on California which is the most populous state in the union. It  has 58 counties and 482 municipalities, but an overall total of 4,444 local government units of which 539 are general purpose and 3,905 are special districts. (  

The fact that the California civil grand jury has generalised investigatory and reporting powers in respect of the work of these units means that their work is an excellent starting point for researching local government.

Their reports constitute an invaluable resource one that is virtually unique that will materially contribute to a detailed understanding of all aspects of the way in which local services are provided in the most populous state in the Union.