While the country’s attention was focused on the approaching danger of Hurricane Harvey, a former county sheriff in Arizona was pardoned by President Trump for having deliberately defied the order of a United States Court.
Ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt of court in July by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton for his willful violation of a 2011 court order prohibiting his department from detaining individuals not suspected of a crime.
Arpaio had previously been found by a different federal judge to have engaged in racial profiling and unlawfully detaining persons of Hispanic origin. Despite the court order to cease violating constitutional protections, Arpaio persisted in doing so. Judge Bolton ruled that he had demonstrated “flagrant disregard” for the 2011 order, citing his own words in press releases and media clips.
Regardless of what a person may think of racial profiling, that is not the issue here. The issue is whether anyone should be able to deliberately violate a valid court order and get away with it.
When a court issues an order prohibiting a person from engaging in specified activities our constitutional system of justice expects them to obey, regardless of who they are or whether the court may arguably have been wrong. That is what we call the rule of law, which goes to the very foundation of our democracy. If a person disagrees with the order, the proper way to get relief is to file an appeal to a higher court. We don’t allow any individual, no matter how powerful, to thumb his nose at the courts.
Our system of justice depends on respect for the law and compliance with the law. The only power a court has to enforce its orders is through the contempt power. This is a particularly important enforcement mechanism where constitutional protections are being infringed upon by public officials.
Mr. Arpaio had the opportunity to put on a defense at the proceeding that resulted in the 2011 order. Yet, he disregarded the order and repeatedly demonstrated disrespect for our justice system by taking the law into his own hands. He apparently regarded himself as being above the law.
The unprecedented pardon of Arpaio’s unpardonable conduct also shows disrespect for the justice system and our constitutional courts. It shows that some favored people can get away with misconduct that the great majority of citizens would have to answer for. It is not a very good example to set, especially where the pardoned individual was part of the law enforcement community--a person sworn to follow and respect the law.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.