Tuesday, June 19, 2001
Superior Court Leaders Deny Plans to End Dual Grand Jury System
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Court officials yesterday denied plans to return to a single grand jury in the wake of criticism by a key prosecutor of the year-old dual civil/criminal system.
Los Angeles Superior Court Juror Services Manager Gloria Gomez and Judge David Wesley, chairman of the Grand Jurors’ Committee, said they were unaware of the concerns brought up by Deputy District Attorney and Grand Jury Legal Advisor Laura Priver about the dual system’s efficiency.
“This is news to us,” Gomez said of a task force report, prepared with Priver’s assistance for the county Economy and Efficiency Commission. “We’ve heard of nothing but satisfaction among members of the court.”
But Priver said a criminal grand jury, sitting for only 30 days, has barely gotten up to speed with its job before it is dismissed and replaced by a new panel.
“It is ineffective in the long term because we have to start over a lot,” Priver said.
The comments came as the county’s Economy and Efficiency Committee is considering a report on the dual system, which was implemented a year ago by then-Presiding Judge Victor Chavez.
Previously, the grand jury was a single body, sitting for a year, with power to hand up criminal indictments and launch non-criminal probes into government operations. Critics complained that the panel, selected randomly from a pool of nominees submitted by judges, had an insufficient representation of Latinos for a body that was indicting so many Latino criminal defendants.
A new 23-member regular, or civil, grand jury was selected last week and is to be sworn in the first week of July. It will sit for a year.
Under Chavez’s innovation, criminal grand juries are now called from voter and driver registration lists, like trial jurors, and are empanelled for a month.
After conducting interviews with the Los Angeles Superior Court judges, the public defender, county counsel, deputy district attorneys, and other parties involved with the grand jury, an Economy and Efficiency Committee task force earlier this month recommended a return to a single unified grand jury.
Two former grand jurors sit on the commission, including last year’s grand jury chairperson, Clayton Anderson.
“We interviewed a broad range within the justice system,” commission chairman and former District Attorney Robert Philibosian said.
Still in its preliminary stages, the task force report is awaiting approval by the commission.
Philibosian declined comment on the specifics of the report prior to commission approval.
Superior Court Executive Officer John Clarke noted that the task force report is purely advisory and the commission has no jurisdiction over the grand jury.
But Priver, a member of the Grand Jurors Committee, said the dual grand jury system is “not an efficient way to do it.”
“It wastes a lot of money and it wastes a lot of time,” Priver said.
A unified grand jury would handle both civil and criminal matters as it used to before the split just a year ago.
The grand jury’s traditional role as a government watchdog has been overrun in the last decade as prosecutors used the grand jury to subpoena witnesses and records and obtain indictments in sensitive or difficult cases.
“The D.A.’s office is shortsighted if it thinks the grand jury is only there to serve them,” Wesley said. “It has other jobs and the dual system serves the citizens of L.A. better.”
Last year, Los Angeles lawyers Charles Lindner and Victor Sherman sued the county, challenging the ethnic composition of the Los Angeles County grand jury, alleging Latinos were being routinely excluded from the grand juror pool.
The law requires that the grand juror pool, and not the final impaneled grand jury, be ethnically diverse, Gomez said.
Lindner resisted the idea of returning to the old single grand jury system, saying that the courts “were doing just fine” with the dual system.
“I would probably sue them if they do go back,” Lindner said.
The courts have denied any connection between the suits and the decision to go with the bifurcated grand jury.
The biggest change in the dual system has been the 30 day time-span in which to conduct a criminal investigation rather than having an entire year like the former system.
“The problem is in regards to our time restriction,” Priver said. “At the end of the month we are pressured to finish things up.”
Wesley said he was not aware of prosecutors having to start over on a hearing since the criminal grand jury was created.
The 30-day time limit of the criminal grand jury was a point of contention at the commission meeting. Several commissioners, along with District Attorney Steve Cooley, expressed concern that 30 days is not enough to complete a complex criminal investigation.
“If we are going to engage in a serious deep probe of corruption, we need the one year criminal grand jury,” Cooley said.
Cooley did say that his office has not run into any serious time problems it cannot work around.
The District Attorney’s office can ask for an extended juror service period. It is expected that the District Attorney’s Office will ask for an increase in service from jurors from 30 to 60 days in August, Wesley said.
The County Counsel and the District Attorney’s offices informed the commission that it is illegal for a civil grand jury to be handing up indictments at the same time there is a sitting criminal grand jury.
Due to the volume of cases that must be dealt with in Los Angeles County, a new criminal jury is called up every month, leaving it virtually impossible for a civil grand jury to handle any criminal investigations in Los Angeles, Priver said.
The only exception to the rule is if the civil grand jury had already begun to investigate a matter prior to the selection of a criminal grand jury.
The dual system requires the District Attorney’s Office to hold half-day orientation for criminal grand jurors once a month as new grand juries are called up, instead of once a year under the single grand jury system.
“Whenever you’re starting something new, it takes a while to get into it,” Priver said. “It takes about 30 days for it to really click. They get it and then they’re gone.”
Priver attributed the fact that there has been no drop in the number of indictments under the new system to the extension of the criminal grand jury’s day.
“We stay late,” Priver said. “I’ve scheduled things with the idea that we’re getting it done. If we were to adhere to the hours the civil grand jury has we wouldn’t get it done.”
Grand jurors must be available five days a week, 50 weeks a year. They are paid $25 per day, plus mileage.
The commission will consider the task force’s recommendation at its July 12 meeting.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company