This morning, President Trump again hinted to reporters that he may issue a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, currently jailed for criminal contempt of court. Though he only faces “up to” six months in jail, any pardon by Arpaio would be a set-back for civil rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law in the United States. From the founding of our nation until today, we have been often reminded to carefully guard our constitutional freedoms; now is not the time to fail in this responsibility.
Understanding Arpaio’s recent career is vital to grasping the significance of his conviction. Starting in 2005, Arpaio’s racially-targeted enforcement of immigration law became controversial. One Department of Justice report determined that his policies were the worst pattern of racial profiling in United States history. His obsession with immigration enforcement even obscured the enforcement of other laws, including those prohibiting sexual assault and child rape.
Arpaio’s immigration enforcement policies included sweeps of Latino neighborhoods and the detention of individuals solely on the basis of their race. As a result, he was the defendant in two lawsuits, including one brought by the Department of Justice. Despite his department’s effort to criminally investigate the presiding judge, one suit resulted in a federal injunction against his department’s continued use of racial profiling and a $4.4 million dollar judgment against his department.
Despite the injunction, Arpaio declared in 2014 that he would continue the racist immigration policies until he was held in contempt. A federal court granted his wish last month, finding him guilty of criminal contempt. Now, President Trump is considering a pardon.
If President Trump follows through, substantial harm may come to racial minorities in the United States. According to Professor Robert Spitzer, an expert on the subject, presidential pardons usually happen when the president feels “that the person has suffered enough,” that “the person being pardoned was prosecute[d] wrongly” or “subject to a sentence that was out or proportion to the crime,” or that “the person being pardoned has reformed himself.” None of these are the case here. Instead, President Trump would pardon Arpaio for two possible reasons: either (1) due to Arpaio’s early political support for his presidential campaign; or (2) on the basis of his political agreement—that is, because the President believes that Arpaio has done nothing wrong in violating the Constitution. Neither is acceptable; both indicate that racist law enforcement policy is not only acceptable, but that those responsible are can act free from consequences.
Furthermore, the President of the United States intervening to undo a conviction of a public official who violated American citizens’ constitutional rights does unspeakable violence to those rights. Our rights mean little when there is no redress when they are violated—which is precisely what a pardon here would do. During the debates over ratification of the Constitution, James Madison warned us that it is not enough to inscribe our rights on paper; they must live in the hearts of our elected officials. When our elected officials do not value those rights, and when law enforcement is freed to act without regard for them, our Constitution becomes a mere “parchment barrier.”
This post originally appeared on the blog of the California Civil Rights Law Group. This blog is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.