Defending D.A. Term Limits
DEFENDING D.A. TERM LIMITS
By Stephen Raher
Referenda - measures placed on the ballot by the legislature rather than through citizen petitions - are often the forgotten regions of elections. Tending to address arcane or obscure subjects, referenda are typically low profile and relatively unimportant. One important exception on this November's ballot is Referendum A, which would repeal term limits for district attorneys.
While there are many good arguments against term limits, many skeptics of term limits in general may have doubts about giving District Attorneys a special exemption from term limits.
Colorado voters added term limits to the state constitution in 1990, and strengthened the limits in 1994. The term limits amendment states that its purpose is to "broaden the opportunities for public service and to assure that elected officials of governments are responsive to the citizens of those governments." (Colorado Const., Article 18, section 11)
Colorado's district attorneys convinced the Legislature to place a special term limits exemption on the ballot before district attorney term limits had a chance to kick in. Since the term limits law took effect in 1995 and DAs serve terms of four years, 2004 will be the first time that voters can see what the electoral landscape looks like with DA term limits in effect.
The arguments in favor of term limits seem stronger for DAs than for many other offices. The DA decides which cases to prosecute and with what to charge a defendant. These charging decisions have significant ramifications in terms of mandatory sentencing triggers, enhanced punishments, and access to diversion programs. Probably no other person in government can affect an individual's life as much as a prosecutor -- and no one can harm an innocent person as much as a district attorney bent on bringing a highly publicized prosecution.
In light of the immense power they hold, DAs should be primarily concerned with serving the best interests of their community. If a District Attorney runs for re-election again and again and again, the District Attorney may become especially susceptible to bringing cases for political value -- rather than handling a case strictly on its merits. By limiting the number of elections with incumbents running, term limits allow for a greater diversity in candidates. The office of District Attorney in particular needs to be filled by people with fresh minds who are open to trying new methods in order to ensure that justice is served and the community is strengthened. The Colorado District Attorneys Council argues that the community cannot afford to give up the benefit of a long-serving DA's experience. Yet the nuts and bolts legal work of the prosecutor's office is done almost entirely by staff. The District Attorney serves as a leader and administrator, a job for which too much political experience can be as much of a handicap as a benefit.
Referendum A is not about whether term limits in theory are good or bad. It is about whether the office of District Attorney is so unique as to warrant an exception from the law that governs all other state offices -- or whether term limits are especially important for an office with so much discretionary power over individual citizens.
Copyright ©2002, Independence Institute
INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.
JON CALDARA is President of the Institute. Stephen Raher of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, wrote this article for the Independence Institute.
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