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Judicial Discretion: County grand jury members sought advice from Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell regarding concerns of racism and cronyism on the jury.

Racism allegations and revolt rock the county civil grand jury

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

AT LEAST FIVE members of the 19-member Santa Clara County civil grand jury are considering staging a mass resignation of their volunteer posts and making public allegations that their foreperson has engaged in unfair and inappropriate conduct, Metro has learned.

According to members of the grand jury, the disgruntled jurors plan to address the County Human Relations Commission on Tuesday, alleging that grand juror Joan Doss achieved her position through cronyism and has used her position as foreperson to disparage minority jurors and to exclude certain members from deliberations as punishment for dissent.

Doss was appointed grand jury foreperson by the presiding judge of the Santa Clara Superior Court, Leslie Nichols, after she worked for 11 years as his court clerk.

According to sources who spoke with Metro, the dissidents plan to say that these activities have affected the grand jury's deliberations and investigations, although they will not talk about specific cases because of the grand jury's strict secrecy rules. The dissident members do not wish to publicly reveal their identities until the Human Relations Commission hearing Nov. 24.

"I've been involved in a lot of dysfunctional organizations, but this is the worst," one source said. "I am shocked."

Doss responded that the opponents who are making public allegations against her work as foreperson are using unfair tactics themselves. "Whoever told you these things knew they were violating the confidentiality provisions of the grand jury. They also knew I would be in no position to confirm or deny them," she said. "I'm not happy about it, obviously. But because of the penal code, I can't say anything more."

Doss denied the charge of cronyism. "I don't think my appointment by Judge Nichols is a conflict of interest," she said. "It is my understanding that judges like to appoint people to these positions whom they have confidence in, and who they know something about."

The source also told Metro that in addition to current complaints about Doss, jurors will discuss what they say is a long history of visible racism in Santa Clara County's grand jury system, namely exclusion and marginalization of people of color and what they call "active white people."

The source said that some former members plan to testify that they were isolated from grand jury deliberations by being ignored during meetings, by having meetings scheduled at times they indicated they could not attend, and being kept in the dark about meetings altogether.

The civil grand jury has broad powers to investigate public agencies and make public policy recommendations. Members are appointed by local judges and serve one-year terms. By law, one or more grand jurors serve as "holdovers" for a second year in order to provide continuity and expertise.

Of the 19 grand jury members in the 1998-99 session, 15 are white, three are Hispanic, and one is African American. One Hispanic and one African American member have already resigned since the new session began in July.

THE GRAND JURY source said that the five dissidents met last summer with Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell after unsuccessful attempts to meet with Presiding Judge Nichols. Cordell is an African American woman who is chair of the committee responsible for recruiting grand jurors. Following that meeting, Assistant District Attorney Bill Larsen scolded members of the grand jury for going to Cordell with their concerns.

Minutes from the Santa Clara County grand jury meeting of Aug. 20, 1998, quote Larsen as saying that "Judge Cordell does not have any authority over this [grand jury]" and wondering aloud "what the devil Judge Cordell would be doing taking up your time with reference to the [grand jury]." The minutes go on to read that "Larsen recommended that no communications be made beyond Foreperson Doss, to Judge Nichols, and definitely not to Judge Cordell. 'You guys ought to get your act together and start getting your work done--respect the authority of the foreperson, whether you like it or not. Knock off this bullshit and mutinous kind of process. ... Get a life.'" The minutes report Larsen accusing grand jurors of "substantially violat[ing] your oath," threatening them with jail and expulsion from the grand jury, and pounding his fist on the table during an exchange with one grand juror.

Subsequent to this meeting, the source tells Metro, several members of the jury discussed the possibility of resigning in protest.

Larsen refused to comment on his remarks to the grand jury, saying that he would not speak about "matters occurring with reference to legal advice to grand jurors" and charging that "it is totally inappropriate for grand jurors to talk outside the grand jury."

Judge Nichols refused to comment. "I have no comment on any matter touching on the internal concerns of the grand jury," he said.

In a telephone interview Judge Cordell said that grand jury secrecy rules do not permit her to comment on any aspect of grand jury deliberations.

But Cordell said that as chair of the recruitment committee, she has been making a concerted effort to bring more minority members onto the grand jury. "The law mandates that the grand jury has to reflect diversity," she said. "It is my understanding that historically the Santa Clara County grand juries have been largely white and male. In a county this diverse, that's not good enough."

SAN JOSE health policy researcher Berkley Driessel, president of the Santa Clara County Association of Good Government, a member of the California Grand Jury Association, and a former Santa Clara County grand jury member, sharply criticized Doss' appointment as foreman by Nichols, calling it "cronyism."

"Give me a break," he says. "I don't think there's anything in the authoritarian background as a court clerk that prepared her for the position as foreman. That position requires expertise in negotiations and board management as well as communications skills. We've been talking to judges, trying to get them not to appoint friends to these positions, but to tap more heavily into this rich mix of experience we've got in this county."

Driessel says that civil grand juries are traditionally "older, whiter and more conservative" than the general population because of the amount of time that grand jurors must devote to their work. He says that the California Grand Jury Association is supporting efforts to increase minority and working-class participation on civil grand juries "to make them more representative," and says that "it is a shame" that actions by leaders of the Santa Clara County grand jury appear to be undermining that effort.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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