“12 Angry Men” is a film about a jury’s deliberation of the innocence of a man convicted of murdering his father. Philadelphia native, Jack Klugman, played juror No. 5. The film was nominated for three Oscars.
Things being how they are, it's safe to assume that Meg Whitman's proposal for a statewide grand jury process to look at waste in government is a cynical campaign gambit, a way to avoid taking difficult positions on the budget. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had many of the same advisors as Whitman, did something similar by promising to do a "line-by-line audit" of state government once he took office.
After he won, the audit was forgotten.
But there's an important idea behind Whitman's tactic, an idea that's worth thinking about. Why not convene groups of regular citizens to examine statewide problems and issues in some official capacity? There might be benefits for California.
The state faces knotty problems -- on budgets, water, prisons, taxes, etc. The debates on those issues rarely involve citizens -- politicians and interest groups dominate. In the process, much of what Californians here about these issues in the media is distorted or just plain wrong. Our political debates thus misinform us; some polls show that Californians believe prisons to be the largest piece of the state budget (in fact, education is the biggest item by far).
A well-designed citizens' jury process -- and good design would include a process that has some of the drama and tension that would attract media coverage -- could be part of a long-term reform strategy for the state. Randomly select Californians who would be paid to spend a week or two hearing from all sides of a particularly difficult issue -- and then would produce a report with recommendations for addressing that problem. Such recommendations, if put together in a fair and open process, would have far more credibility than any piece of legislation advanced by a legislature.
Government waste could be one of the problems tackled through a citizens' jury process. If a citizens panel concluded -- as many who have studied the question have -- that California doesn't have much government waste at all, it might well be a public service.