One of the dirty little secrets of the American criminal justice system is that when a prosecuting attorney violates his or her ethical duty to disclose all evidence that potentially exonerates a criminal defendant to the defendant's lawyer, often causing a wrongful conviction for a crime, the attorney rarely suffers any consequence for the lapse even though a court of law in the criminal case found that the attorney violated this ethical duty.
A DA in rural Southern Colorado, Francis Ruybalid, didn't just violate this duty. He violated in more than 150 different cases, resulting in 15 of those convictions including convictions for child abuse, domestic violence and murder being thrown out.
What consequences did this DA suffer?
He resigned as DA, and in exchange for admitting to more than 24 ethical violations, his law license was placed on probation. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, denied him reimbursement for the $223,000 of attorneys fees and litigation costs that he incurred defending himself against the ethics charges, because they involved reckless or knowing conduct which the Court held was not within the scope of his official duties as a DA.
Additional details and a photograph can be found in an article at the Colorado Sun.
Then, this bad lawyer became someone else's problem. He was hired by the state of New Mexico to be an attorney for the Children, Youth & Families Department, where he will presumably be charged with bringing lawsuits on behalf of the state to terminate the parental rights of parents whom investigators believe have committed serious child abuse and neglect.
So, he was out $223,000 and he had to move and take a new job with what was probably a modest pay cut and a huge drop in authority and prestige from head of a District Attorneys' office for more than one county supervising other prosecutors, to a job as a rank and file lawyer handling individual cases and probably having no more supervisory authority than he might share with other lawyers and managers in the department over a secretary, paralegal and the investigators involved in particular child abuse and neglect cases. He could conceivably also be called upon to handle juvie jail discipline cases and probation revocation cases for juveniles sentenced after committing crimes as minors.
He didn't lose his license to practice law or even have it briefly suspended. New Mexico didn't decline to let him have a law licenses as a result and he probably received reciprocity in admissions to the practice of law in New Mexico despite his disciplinary record.
And, because prosecutors have "absolute immunity" for their judicial system conduct (although not for investigative matters), none of the criminal defendants who received unjust punishment because exculpatory evidence was withheld, and none of the victims who had crimes committed against them go unpunished because the DA screwed up can sue him. Some of those unpunished criminals are on the streets and may commit further crimes as a result. On the other hand, even if he could have been sued by the injured parties, realistically, he was probably virtually judgment proof once he had paid his lawyers (who are probably going to get stiffed for some part of his legal bill themselves).
It is worth noting, however, that if a DA isn't entitled to indemnification from the County for this conduct because it didn't fall within his official duties, perhaps his absolute immunity from civil liability for his official conduct in judicial proceedings (as opposed to investigative proceeding where the immunity is merely "qualified") doesn't apply either. There are lots of cases in other jurisdictions that hold that Brady violations do not impair a DA's absolute immunity, but those cases, unlike future cases in Colorado, would not have had the foundation of this case defining in advance the scope of an attorney's official actions, upon which to build a case.
The resulting rule, which would allow District Attorneys to be sued only when they had been adjudicated to have committed ethical violations in a manner that was outside the DA's officials duties, would actually be a very management and reasonable way to balance the need to limit collateral litigation against prosecuting attorneys by convicted criminals, while remedying legitimate wrongs where liability is basically established independently before the case begins. The same rule could even be applied to judges who generally have absolute immunity.
So, all in all, while this bad lawyer's ethical violations, unlike so many prosecutors who commit similar violations (although rarely so pervasively) did have quite meaningful consequences, they weren't all that severe either in proportion to the harm he did.
Now, in his defense, this incident arguably looks like a classic case of the Peter Principle, "which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their "level of incompetence". In other words, an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another."
As a lawyer its his job to know how to do that and get it done, and if he didn't know that he wasn't getting that part of his job done, he should have known. So it really wasn't as he argued in Court, mere negligence (although the Court could very easily have reached the opposite conclusion and found that while he did his job unethically that he was still doing his job). More likely, he wasn't confident enough to make the waves and direct people in a manner to make sure that this bureaucratically very cumbersome obligation was fulfilled.
Basically, it is certainly possible that he was competent enough to do the job of a junior prosecutor, but once he was elected to be the DA, everyone discovered that he was an incompetent manager whose failure to establish proper office procedures, which was his job, led to widespread and systemic violations of the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. So, perhaps, now that he has returned to his previous more humble level of responsibility, he may do just fine.
Also, assistant district attorneys in Southern Colorado are hardly the best paid attorneys admitted to the bar. According to Zip Recruiter:
[A]s of Jun 5, 2019, the average annual pay for an Assistant District Attorney in Colorado is $65,363 a year. While ZipRecruiter is seeing annual salaries as high as $84,284 and as low as $47,825, the majority of Assistant District Attorney salaries currently range between $53,033 (25th percentile) to $79,549 (75th percentile) in Colorado.
The high is probably in the Second Judicial District which is Denver, which has a high cost of living. The Third Judicial District probably has below average pay for its assistant district attorneys' overall, although this would have been balanced out somewhat by seniority. Still, it is safe to say that immediately before being elected DA, Francis Ruybalid was probably earning $75,000 a year or less, and he would have made less in the earlier years of his career. This is enough to live comfortably in rural Southern Colorado, but it almost means that paying for $223,000 of legal fees out of his own pocket probably wipes out a very large share of his entire net worth.
Since this is a contactual debt owed to his attorneys to the extent it hasn't already been paid, it can surely be discharged in bankruptcy, but bankruptcy may very well be in his future if he can't work out a payment plan for any unpaid balances with his ethics defense lawyers who still, at least, left him employable.