Time to take the partisanship out of law enforcement

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It was hard not to feel sorry for the politicians, former politicians, wannabe politicians and hopeful candidates sweltering in the sun’s merciless glare last Thursday.

There they were on the lawn of the county courthouse, uncomfortably besuited, declaring their fealty to GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis. Speeches were made and applauded, endorsements were announced, press releases were distributed and only County Commissioner Sallie Clark seemed unaffected by the 90-degree heat.

It was a pleasant enough event, if you managed to find a little shade. The pre-election rituals of our ancient republic are comforting and familiar, like fireworks on the 4th, turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas lights. I was glad to be a disinterested observer, obliged neither to wear a suit nor to take seriously the partisan puffery that the occasion demanded.

Yet there were moments of discomfort, particularly when District Attorney Dan May and Sheriff Terry Maketa announced their support for McInnis. It seemed somehow jarring and inappropriate to hear two of our senior law enforcement officials mouth angry partisan clichés about “sanctuary cities” and speaking of Democrats “releasing rapists and felons.”

I know that these are just political talking points. I know that neither May nor Maketa would ever discriminate on the basis of party affiliation. But is it appropriate that such offices be contested in partisan elections?

The Colorado constitution mandates the election of district attorneys and of sheriffs.

“In each judicial district there shall be a district attorney elected by the electors thereof, whose term of office shall be four years. District attorneys shall receive such salaries and perform such duties as provided by law.”(Article 6, section 13)

“There shall be elected in each county one county clerk … one sheriff; one coroner; one treasurer who shall be collector of taxes; one county superintendent of schools; one county surveyor; one county assessor; and one county attorney.”(Article 14, section 8)

Under Colorado’s original constitution, judges were also elected. In 1966, however, voters approved an initiative which removed judges from the political arena and created a merit selection process. Under this system, judges are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees provided by a judicial nominating commission. Judges then stand for retention in subsequent non-partisan elections.

This hybrid system of appointment and election has worked well. It’s far from infallible, but it does assure that judges are removed from the hurly-burly of partisan politics, yet still accountable to voters.

Partisan politics are fine for county commissioners and state legislators because they don’t have the extraordinary powers and responsibilities of prosecutors and law enforcement officers. You don’t expect Republicans to support the Democrat’s platform, and vice versa.

But partisanship has no place in law enforcement. There are 22 district attorneys and 64 sheriffs in Colorado, and every one of them owes his or her office to party politics. They’ve had to cultivate the party power brokers, raise money, get nominated and run for election.

Once elected, will they enforce the laws impartially and effectively, or will they do favors for the folks who put them there?

Such abuses are, I suspect, quite rare. But the potential for partisan abuse of office was amply demonstrated when our elected attorney general, John Suthers, joined 13 other Republican attorneys general (and a lone Southern Democrat) in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the Obama administration’s healthcare initiative. The suit, filed seven minutes after the law became effective, did not seem to be the product of careful, reasoned debate among thoughtful lawyers, but a deliberate partisan attack planned by senior Republican political strategists.

In recent years, two incumbent El Paso district attorneys have been defeated at the polls following allegations of alcohol abuse. That’s an argument in favor of contested elections, rather than a hybrid appoint and retain system.

So here’s a suggestion.

Amend the Colorado Constitution to make the election of law enforcement officials nonpartisan. Candidates would have to conform to the present constitutional requirements for such officeholders, but they could neither accept nor solicit support from any political party. As Colorado voters, we’d make decisions based on criteria other than party affiliation. Character, experience and peer support would drive candidacies, not partisan sloganeering.

It’s a small reform, and one which might appeal to voters fed up with partisan sniping and governmental gridlock/dysfunction.

Not to mention keeping the sheriff and the D.A. from venturing out in the midday sun unless ferreting out criminal activity. Hey, come to think of it, maybe they should show up at political events anyway.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.