Superior Court Judge Michael Brenner said Monday he will not admonish the Orange County Grand Jury for its controversial report on immigration but wants to meet with outraged minority group leaders to enlist their help in seeking a more diverse pool of grand jurors.
The report--which recommended a three-year moratorium on immigration nationwide and linked illegal immigration to a host of society's ills--has been branded by Latino and Asian leaders as insensitive and one-sided.
Brenner, who oversees the grand jury and reviews the reports before they are made public, said it would not be appropriate for him to admonish the grand jurors for releasing their conclusions, because such a reprimand would diminish their independence.
"That's their report," Brenner said, adding that he can reject a report before its release if it is slanderous, libelous or recommends an illegal activity. "I really can't criticize whether it is right or wrong."
Brenner also said that he could not object to the Orange County Grand Jury tackling an issue of international scope, such as immigration, because grand jurors focused on the impact within Orange County. The report concluded that illegal immigration costs the county $200 million annually for social services, health care, law enforcement and legal services that it must provide.
Some critics said the topic was beyond the grand jury's purview. Brenner noted that the San Diego Grand Jury has also taken on the immigration issue.
Minority leaders, who asked Brenner to censure the grand jury over the report, said they will detail their concerns when they meet with Brenner and hope he will reconsider his decision. Some leaders also want a federal investigation into the report and into procedures for selecting jurors.
"We are pleased that the judge would like to meet with us," said Zeke Hernandez, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We think that the grand jury has gone from being a neutral, independent body to taking up a right-wing, anti-immigration stance."
Hernandez said he is in the process of drafting a complaint to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, requesting an investigation into what he described as "taxpayer-supported political hate literature."
The report has prompted representatives of a wide array of minority groups to criticize the grand jury's domination by older, Anglo county residents. Court officials, including Brenner, say it has been difficult to attract minorities to apply for the grand jury, which requires full-time work at just $25 per day.
The grand jury is impaneled for a year and meets as often as five times a week.
The current 19-member grand jury is composed of 17 Anglos and two Latinos. The new grand jury, scheduled to be sworn in Thursday, will have an average age of 64 and will include 15 Anglos, two Latinos, one African-American and one American Indian.
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, Orange County is 64.5% Anglo, 23.4% Latino, 10% Asian and 1.6% African-American.
Brenner said court administrators do an excellent job of seeking out minority applicants, but lamented that few people--regardless of race--are willing to give up a year of their time to sit on the grand jury. Hernandez and other critics say the court can do more.
A date for a meeting between the advocates and Brenner has not yet been set. Brenner remains on vacation until next week, but he said he looks forward to sitting down with representatives from any minority or community group who have a complaint about the grand jury. He will be urging them to lend help recruiting grand jurors.
"I'd really like to meet with them, and I'll bring along a packet of applications," Brenner said. "I'd like nothing better than to have the rainbow grand jury."
Critics say racial diversity on the grand jury panel would have led to a fairer report.
"I think the integrity of the grand jury system is at stake here," said John Palacio, a director with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Palacio said that he knows of several instances in which past Orange County grand juries refused to investigate complaints from the Latino community about voting rights, police brutality and malicious prosecution.
"We need to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again," Palacio said. "Meeting with Judge Brenner will be an important first step, but I'd ask him to withhold judgment until he meets with us."