Trump’s Pardon of Joe Arpaio and the Rule of Law.

President Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Friday, a move many are calling an attack on the rule of law and another example of the President’s alleged cozy relationship with racism.

Sherriff Joe Arpaio has always been a controversial and polarizing figure. Despite being reelected numerous times and serving as Sheriff of Maracopia County from 1996 to 2016, he has earned the scorn of many groups around the country and been the subject of Department of Justice investigations over allegations of racial profiling while enforcing immigration law on behalf of the federal government. A federal court eventually found him to be unlawfully stopping and arresting people based on assumptions about where people were from and their potential status as undocumented immigrants. A federal judge ordered him to stop these practices and after ignoring the injunction for several months he was found in contempt. This is what the President pardoned him for.

Making his name as “America’s Toughest Sheriff”, Arpaio famously instituted policies such as having inmates at Maracopia County Jail sleep outside in tents, use pink underwear, and cheap, low quality food. Conditions inside the jail were themselves subjects of numerous lawsuits and investigations. His attitude toward inmates and the policies he instituted speak to the way he saw his role as a sheriff, not to mention how the people of Maracopia County saw, something shown by the fact that he was reelected for so many years.

His whole attitude was one of saying, if you break the law, even immigration law, you do not deserve consideration or good treatment. This sort of approach flies in the face of the progressive attitude towards lawbreakers which looks at people’s background and intentions and generally sees crime as a systemic issue over which most criminals have no control. Perhaps that is why Arpaio enjoyed so much support among locals and conservatives across the country, he took the viewpoint that individuals are ultimately responsible for their actions and that the law should be tough on criminals who prey on society not see them as the victims.  

On the other hand though, Arpaio’s policies made no distinctions between people who had been convicted of crimes and those who were merely awaiting trial. For those accused of offenses but unable to post bail, they might have to spend months in “Tent City” before having their case resolved. Additionally, while many have unfairly categorized him as a racist for harshly cracking down on illegal immigration in the area, when it came to arresting people based on their ability to speak English or other non-criminal behavior the policies instituted by his office were in clear violation of the fourth amendment. Our desire to hold people who break the law accountable cannot lead us to violate the fundamental rights that make our country so great.

To arrest a person a police officer must have probable cause they are committing a crime, not mere a suspicion based on conjecture and speculation. Allowing that puts us mere steps away from having citizens be rounded up and thrown in jail just because they cross someone in power. Once a person is in the system, especially if the lack financial resources, the price they pay is extremely high and even if they are eventually found innocent and let go, the damage of having spent months in jail is already done. This is why our presumption of innocence and our constitutional protections cannot be allowed to be circumvented, even by well-meaning people who want to keep us safe.

Ultimately problem with leaders like Arpaio is that their supposed defense of the law ends up undermining the rule of law itself. The concept of the rule of law means that all of us abide by the laws that govern our country, from small local ordinances, to big constitutional constraints. Also the issue of inmate treatment, even if they are repeat offenders can be a problem because allowing the use of arbitrary measures to inflict punishment creates the potential for too much discretion and either preferential or negative treatment by guards. We also must not forget that a society governed by laws and not men means that even those who lack moral worth must be treated with dignity and respect. It is not about who they are or what they did, it is about who we are.


Finally, as many including House Speaker Paul Ryan have rightly noted, those in public office need to be especially careful to respect the rights of the citizenry and those who abuse those rights, even for what are good aims, must be held accountable. The President was certainly within his constitutional rights to pardon Arpaio, but in doing so he sent a message that if you are on the right “team” and helped the current President get elected, upholding and defending the constitution doesn’t apply to you anymore and that openly flouting a federal judge’s orders will cost you nothing. That message, if internalized by our public officials, is far more dangerous to the rule of law and longevity of our republic than illegal immigration. 

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