Trump pardons Joe Arpaio

President Trump today issued a pardon to the man he calls “Sheriff Joe” — Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio was convicted of failing to follow a court order to end the practice of detaining people based on the suspicion that they lack legal status and turning them over to the border patrol.

The White House provided this explanation of the pardon:

Arpaio’s life and career, which began at the age of 18 when he enlisted in the military after the outbreak of the Korean War, exemplify selfless public service. After serving in the Army, Arpaio became a police officer in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, NV and later served as a Special Agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), formerly the Bureau of Narcotics. After 25 years of admirable service, Arpaio went on to lead the DEA’s branch in Arizona.

In 1992, the problems facing his community pulled Arpaio out of retirement to return to law enforcement. He ran and won a campaign to become Sheriff of Maricopa County. Throughout his time as Sheriff, Arpaio continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now eighty-five years old, and after more than fifty years of admirable service to our Nation, he is worthy candidate for a Presidential pardon.

I think there should be a strong presumption against granting pardons. I would prefer that the judicial system, flawed though it is, have the final word on the fate of those who are, or who may be, before it.

But if presidential pardons are going to be granted, and every modern president has granted them, it seems to me that Arpaio is a good candidate, basically for the reasons set forth by the White House. Sheriffs shouldn’t defy court orders. But in a real sense, Arpaio’s crime consists of being overzealous in combating illegal immigration.

It arose in the context of lack of zealousness on the part of the federal government. According to this account, the judge found Arpaio couldn’t detain those who lack legal status because that’s the federal government’s job. But the feds hadn’t been doing that job.

Arpaio was accused by the Obama Justice Department and other left-wingers of targeting Hispanics. Indeed, the legal case that led to his conviction arose from claims of racial profiling. But in Maricopa County, the illegal immigrant population is overwhelmingly Hispanic. Had the County been plagued by mass illegal immigration by Koreans, chances are Sheriff Joe would have targeted Asians. And he would have been right to do so. Sheriffs shouldn’t be expected to check their common sense at the door.

To be sure, the pardon of Arpaio is, at least in part, a political act by a president who campaigned on a tough-as-nails immigration policy and who received Arpaio’s backing. But there’s a pretty good argument that the prosecution of Arpaio was also political.

It was the highly politicized, left-wing Obama Justice Department that chose to prosecute Arpaio in connection with the hot button political issue of enforcing immigration laws. It did so, according to Arpaio’s lawyers, just two weeks before he stood for reelection.

The pardon thus can be said to represent a political end to a political case.

Some may defend the pardon by comparing it to egregious pardons of the past, like President Clinton’s pardon of wealthy fugitive Marc Rich and President Obama’s pardon of a Puerto Rican terrorist. Arguing form these outliers strikes me as misguided. Their pardons were so flagrantly unjust that the same argument could be used to defend a great many indefensible pardons.

No such argument is required to defend Trump’s pardon of Arpaio. It was a reasonable exercise of the pardon power.

NOTE: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the Arizona judge who issued the order Arpaio violated apparently was content with a civil contempt citation. Actually, the judge referred the case to the Justice Department for possible criminal proceedings.

However, Arpaio’s legal team argued, correctly, that the judge’s order wasn’t clear and that Arpaio received mixed signals from the judiciary and the federal government about what his office could and couldn’t do. The Wall Street Journal’s editors, who oppose the pardon, acknowledge the accuracy of this argument.

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