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Former Third Judicial District Attorney Frank Ruybalid at a 2016 Democratic caucus. (Provided by the Trinidad Chronicle-News)

In 2015, Frank Ruybalid, the former district attorney for Colorado’s Third Judicial District, oversaw an office in disarray.

State regulators accused Ruybalid of more than 150 instances of violating legal ethics by withholding evidence in criminal cases. As a result of those transgressions, 15 cases were dismissed in the Third, which encompasses the southern Colorado counties of Las Animas and Huerfano. They included charges of child abuse, domestic violence and murder.

Facing possible disbarment, Ruybalid admitted to more than two dozen ethical violations in exchange for a sentence of probation for his law license. But that didn’t end the case. There still remained the matter of money — more than $223,000 in attorney’s fees and other costs that Ruybalid paid out of his own pocket to defend himself from the allegations.

Ruybalid said the Las Animas and Huerfano county governments should reimburse him for those costs, citing a state law that says district attorneys can ask their counties to pay “the expenses necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties for the benefit of such county.” The counties said no way.

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This week, the Colorado Supreme Court had the final say.

In a first-of-its kind ruling in Colorado, the state’s highest court said there is some conduct by prosecutors that is so far over the line that it can’t be considered part of their official duties. Ruybalid will get no reimbursement.

“We conclude that costs that arise from recklessly or knowingly engaging in unethical conduct cannot by any standard constitute costs that are necessarily incurred in the discharge of a district attorney’s official duties,” Justice Brian Boatright, who authored the court’s unanimous opinion, wrote. “Simply put, Ruybalid was sanctioned for failing to perform his official duties in an extraordinarily high number of cases(.)”

(The emphasis on the word “failing” is Boatright’s.)

Former Third Judicial District Attorney Frank Ruybalid. (Provided by the Huerfano World Journal)

Reached in New Mexico, where he is now an attorney for that state’s Children, Youth & Families Department, Ruybalid said he was unaware of the latest ruling in the long-running case. But he said the outcome, while disappointing, is not a surprise.

Because there is no federal constitutional issue at stake, the state Supreme Court’s ruling likely cannot be appealed.

“I think the statute is pretty broad,” he said of the district attorney reimbursement law, “but the district court and the Court of Appeals didn’t see it that way. … It was going to be an uphill battle to get the Supreme Court to see it differently.”

Ruybalid also disputed what is the linchpin of the Supreme Court’s ruling — that his ethical transgressions weren’t just innocent lapses but in some instances were violations committed “recklessly or knowingly.” That distinction is what separates this case from one where an allegation of unethical behavior is made in the heat of battle, “the byproduct of the adversarial system,” as Boatright put it.

But Ruybalid, in an interview with The Colorado Sun, described the transgressions as “negligent oversights” committed unintentionally and under the pressure of limited resources.

Boatwright wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling that Ruybalid had stipulated as part of his agreement with state regulators that some of the ethical violations were done recklessly or knowingly. Ruybalid responded in the interview that it has been a number of years since he’s reviewed those documents.

The Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said the difference between an innocent mistake and a reckless or knowing one is crucial here — and what keeps this from being a ruling that will have prosecutors across the state worried for their wallets.

There are always going to be mistakes, Raynes said. A prosecutor or a defense attorney may honestly forget to share a piece of evidence. And, in situations like that, the Supreme Court suggested that prosecutors may be entitled to reimbursement for the costs of defending themselves against allegations of impropriety.

But Ruybalid’s conduct was so deficient, the resulting consequence of 15 cases being dismissed was so extraordinary, that the Supreme Court concluded he failed to fulfill a district attorney’s obligation to justice.

“I think the court was careful to say that this is a rare situation,” Raynes said. “This is a unique situation that should be seen on its own facts.”

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at...