Voters asked to bump DA to three terms
Summit Daily News
Vail, CO Colorado
BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado – District Attorney Mark Hurlbert says his positions calls for experience and a third term, a proposition being put to voters Tuesday.
But others in the legal field locally say its time for a fresh face behind the DA’s desk.
Ballot question 1A will ask voters in Summit, Eagle, Lake and Clear Creek counties whether the Fifth Judicial District Attorney should be eligible to run for a third term of office.
If passed, the measure would allow Hurlbert, who’s served nine years, to run again in the November 2012 election.
Though he wouldn’t confirm whether he would, in fact, try for a third term, Hurlbert said the measure makes sense for the position of the district attorney.
“Ultimately, it’s about experience and having an experienced person at the top,” Hurlbert said. “And there’s nobody more experienced in this district than me. There’s a skill set, and with that comes experience. The more experience a district attorney has, the better (he or she) can serve the community.”
Though Hurlbert has garnered the support of both the Summit Board of County Commissioners – who agreed to put the measure on the ballot – and Sheriff John Minor on the issue, those in the legal community in the district are more divided.
“I’m in favor of term limits,” criminal defense attorney Timothy Meinert said. “I think things are kind of stagnant in the DA’s office. The time for a change comes, and that’s why the people of Colorado decided to impose term limits on their elected officials.”
In 1994, voters passed an amendment to the Colorado constitution limiting all elected officials – except judges – to two four-year terms. The measure has been overturned locally to allow three terms for all officials in Summit County, with the exception of the district attorney.
Hurlbert and others in the district say it’s inappropriate to impose such tight restrictions on certain positions that require specific expertise.
“I don’t think normal rules should apply to what are normally administrative offices,” said Rohn Robbins, a civil litigator in Eagle County. “To some degree, term limits are an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. Let the voters make their own decision.”
But senior judge Terry Ruckriegle said that while change in public offices can be positive and individuals who hold a position for too long can accumulate too much power, term limits do cost the people good public servants.
“The electorate always has the ability to vote a person out of office,” Ruckriegle stated in an email.
Hurlbert’s nine-year stint as prosecutor for the 5th Judicial District has been eventful and, at times, marked by controversy.
A former deputy DA, Hurlbert was appointed to the top job in 2002 by Gov. Bill Owens when Mike Goodbee went to the Colorado attorney general’s office mid-term.
In 2004, after a young woman was allegedly raped in Eagle County by L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, Hurlbert became the lead prosecutor on criminal proceedings that gained national attention. The case collapsed a year later when the alleged victim backed out.
Hurlbert won his first election in 2004. In 2009, with the help of legislation he’d fought to pass, Hurlbert was able to close a 33-year-old cold case.
The perpetrator had raped and murdered a woman at the Bakerville exit of Interstate 70 in 1976, but the killer would not be brought to justice until his DNA was entered into the state system for an unrelated crime.
But past successes were overshadowed in 2010, as Hurlbert faced public scrutiny after he opted not to press felony charges against Martin Erzinger, an Eagle County financial manager accused of hit and run causing injury to a cyclist.
Media reports at the time suggested prosecutors backed away from the case because it could jeopardize Erzinger’s job, an accusation Hurlbert contests.
The DA said he lowered the charges to two misdemeanor traffic counts because leaving-the-scene-of-an-accident laws are intended to target drunk drivers and Erzinger was sober but likely fell asleep at the wheel at the time of the accident.
“It had nothing to do with Mr. Erzinger’s status in the community,” Hurlbert said. “If you give me the same facts and the person is working at a fast-food restaurant, I will give the same plea bargain.”
But controversy shadowed the DA’s office again as Hurlbert pushed for a second trial and talked about a third after two juries deadlocked in a child pornography possession case bought against former Summit County health care executive Dennis Flint.
“(The DA’s office) has shown that some of their decision making in terms of how they prosecute cases is questionable,” Meinert said.
But despite accusations the DA had failed to uphold his responsibility to protect the interests of the people, Hurlbert’s supporters say his job was not to act on public opinion.
“To punish him for making unpopular decisions now and again is absurd,” Robbins said. “I’d rather have a DA that does unpopular things now and again because it means he’s listening to the lights of justice and not polls and opinions.”
Six of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts have already approved three-term limits for DAs. Colorado is the only state in the country that imposes term limits on district attorneys.