Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that sunlight is the best disinfectant — that illuminating the machinations of government provides a defense against corruption and abuse of power.
To that end, the Santa Clara Superior Court is seeking applicants for the this year’s civil grand jury.
“Those individuals will act as the overseers for our local government,” said Judge Rise Pichon, who presides over civil grand jury indictments. “They do an important service for our community. It is an opp for our citizens to learn more about inner workings of the government.”
The civil grand jury is an arm of the Santa Clara Superior Court, but it is comprised of citizens who have authority to investigate county and city governments, special districts, juvenile detention facilities, jails and school districts. The watchdog group has access to financial records to ensure accountability of public money.
Since the jury sets its own priorities, applicants should be able to work well with others and accept dissenting opinions, Pichon said. They should also be able to keep an open mind, she added.
Working on the jury is a 20-to-25-hour-a-week commitment, said Tamara Davis, deputy manager of jury services. When the jury prepares to write its reports in June, that commitment can jump to 40 hours a week.
It is important that applicants, who must be at least 18 and U.S. citizens, also like to read and write. Often, she said, the 19 available seats and 11 alternate slots are filled with retirees.
However, Davis said civic mindedness is most important. The court looks for representatives from as many walks of life — including sex, race, religion, and sexual orientation — and areas as possible to ensure the county is fully represented.
“I have had people tell me it is a civic lesson unlike anything they have ever known, and a lot of these are county employees who are retired,” she said.
In 2014, a grand jury investigation got Don Moody, public administrator/guardian/conservator, removed from office after widespread complaints showed his department to be dysfunctional, It has also investigated such issues as Palo Alto’s lack of transparency on land use, government procedure on closed meetings, and access to services for female inmates at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas.
Typically, complaints drive the grand jury’s agenda for the year, Davis said. While the jury is allowed to view previous reports from other grand juries for continuity, each year’s jury is independent, meaning it must do its own fact finding, she added. As the penal code drives its actions, its reports must be statements of fact.
Holdovers from the previous year are allowed to apply again, but jurors may only serve for two years, Davis said.
Pichon said the court looks at every application and schedules around 60 interviews for a field of 30.
Interested candidates can apply online at www.scscourt.org under. Additional questions may be directed to CGJ@scscourt.org or by contacting Tamara Davis at 408-882-2721. The deadline to submit applications is April 1.