California Grand Jury Association Urged to Focus on Conservatorship Reform

Dear Officers and Directors,

Until today when I came across your website, I was unaware of the California Grand Jury Association.

Earlier this year, I wrote a commentary discussing the power of civil grand juries to identify systemic flaws in the probate conservatorship system in California and to suggest reforms.  A copy of the commentary is attached.  Please share it with your chapters and members.

I realize that civil grand juries are not authorized to investigate state officers or agencies.  Even with that limitation, there is much to investigate regarding the role of county officials with respect to the conservatorship system.  Particular focus could be placed on the use of county funds to provide indigent legal defense services to seniors and adults with mental and developmental disabilities in these proceedings.  Please be mindful that these adults are involuntary litigants who, due to the nature of their disabilities, may not defend themselves.  Rarely can they retain counsel or are they allowed to do so. (Britney Spears case is an example of this.)  Therefore, they must rely on appointed counsel to advocate for their expressed wishes and to defend their rights from encroachment by the state.

County supervisors have three ways in which they can fulfill the state mandate to provide indigent legal defense services in these cases: (1) create a public defender department and direct that department to provide such services; (2) contract such services to a private law firm as a county vendor; or (3) allow the superior court to appoint attorneys on an ad hoc basis and then pay the attorneys as ordered by the court.

Spectrum Institute is completing a study of the use of public funds for indigent legal defense services in probate conservatorship cases.  The 100+ page report will include a recommendation that in 2022 the civil grand jury in each county investigate the use of public funds for such legal defense services.  We will be sending a copy of the report to the California Grand Jury Association and to the civil grand jury in each of the 58 counties later when the report is available – probably in September.  The report will list the primary provider of such legal services in each of the 24 counties that use public defender departments for these services and the 22 counties that use “contract public defenders.”

Problems the report will identify include: crushing caseloads in public defender departments that prevent lawyers from providing quality legal services; the lack of performance standards to inform the attorneys of what they are required to do to fulfill constitutional and statutory mandates that entitle these clients to effective assistance of counsel; the lack of adequate monitoring by county officials to ensure that the county is not funding deficient services that violate rules of professional conduct as well as federal and state disability nondiscrimination laws; the lack of established procedures for complaints to be filed and investigated for substandard legal services to these vulnerable clients; etc.

The California Grand Jury Association could play a role in bringing this important matter to the attention of civil grand juries in all counties as they establish their agendas for 2022.

We urge your association to take an interest in this problem and to share this email and attachments, and the report when it is released later this year, to the civil grand juries in all counties.

Thank you for your attention.  Please get in touch if you would like more information or are interested in discussing this matter further.

Thomas F. Coleman

Legal Director

Spectrum Institute

Their Response:

Dear Mr. Coleman,

We commend your study of the conservatorship issue and agree that is an important issue for California. The California Grand Jurors’ Association, however, is not in a position to advise sitting grand juries regarding which investigations to conduct. Our mission is to train, educate, and advocate for the grand jury system. The selection of investigative topics lies completely with the individual grand juries. 

Therefore, we won’t be able to act on your request and we thank you for contacting us. 

Louis P. Panetta, President

California Grand Jurors’ Association 

Our Reply:

Mr. Panetta,

I understand the focus of your association.  A very worthy one.

We will contact the individual jurisdictions and make our suggestion for investigation.

Thank you for the prompt reply.

Tom Coleman