I thought about beginning this article by recounting the horrific abuses perpetrated under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, such as the time a woman arrested for an outstanding fine was forced to give birth in shackles and was denied the opportunity to hold her newborn girl, or the conditions of sweltering Arizona heat endured by inmates in Arpaio’s outdoor Tent City Jail. Those abuses of power are sickening, and the local paper covering that area of Arizona, the Phoenix New Times has meticulous reporting spanning 20 years filled with a myriad of such sickening details. But I’m not going to spend time analyzing these injustices further because that isn’t what got Sheriff Arpaio convicted of criminal contempt of court. Arpaio was convicted because he and his deputies willfully refused to obey a federal judge who ordered them to stop arresting and detaining people who were simply suspected of being undocumented residents, an order that recognized that these arrests involved unconstitutional racial profiling. According to USA Today, Arpaio disregarded that order for 17 months and illegally apprehended an additional 171 people. Arpaio was convicted on July 31st 2017 and faced up to 6 months of prison time, which was to be determined in a sentencing hearing beginning October 5th. Now, of course, Arpaio will not spend any time in prison because our President has given him an official pardon.
In a tweet thanking President Trump for the pardon, Arpaio maintained that his conviction was nothing more than “a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama justice department!’’ Contrary to this assessment, the law clerk for the judge who first ordered Arpaio to cease the unlawful arrests, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, writes that Judge G. Murray Snow, a GW Bush appointee, is a “deeply principled conservative” who treated Arpaio fairly throughout the trial. This sense of fairness was certainly not reciprocated by Arpaio, who subsequently sent deputies to stalk Snow’s wife, according to reporting from the Phoenix New Times. Thus, to be clear, there was no witch hunt: a federal judge, and a conservative one at that, issued a legitimate and binding judicial order which Arpaio flagrantly disobeyed, and his conviction was based in the understanding that no one, not even a career law-man, is above the law.
Why would our President choose to make his first official pardon – a pardon that breaks with tradition both because it comes so early in his presidency and because he did not seek counsel on it from the Department of Justice – a pardon of such a polarizing figure? The Washington Post reports that at a rally prior to the official pardon, President Trump “called Arpaio a ‘great American patriot’” who had ‘done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. . . . He has protected people from crimes and saved lives. He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.’” It’s no secret that Arpaio has been an outspoken supporter of President Trump and it is also not a secret that Arpaio’s brand of “law and order” compliments President Trump’s own rhetoric. As a reminder, in his July speech to police officers, President Trump encouraged them to be “rough” and mocked the procedure of shielding the head of an arrestee when guiding them into the back of the police car. Given our President’s acceptance of police brutality, it is not surprising that he can overlook the abuses I detailed in the introduction this article. But aside from the show of authoritarian strength – which our President seems to consistently praise, even when it comes in the former of brutal dictators such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – there is no getting away from the fact that this was a political pardon: our President is willing to undermine basic moral principle and even the rule of law he otherwise claims to support if it is in service of scratching the back of people who have scratched his own.
I am waiting patiently for the prominent vocal Christian supporters of President Trump to struggle to explain away this latest breach of ethical behavior. The oft-turned to line that “at least we have conservative Justices” starts to ring hollow when, with a stroke of his pen, our President shows such a blatant disregard for the judiciary.
Sources: The Washington Post, USA Today, Phoenix New Times, NPR